Sullivan lawmakers get a lesson in gas drilling

Sullivan lawmakers get a lesson in gas drilling

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“We’ve got to slow this train down.”


MONTICELLO, NY — Gas well fever is spreading through the region like an invasive species, with some landowners lining up to let gas companies exploit their land for natural gas. And with understandable reason: there’s gold in them there hills, at least for some landowners.

The most recent get-rich-quick story comes from Delaware County, where, according to an article in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin published on May 11, a coalition of about 300 landowners near Deposit have reached a deal with gas companies to allow gas exploration on their lands in return for $90 million. The article further said the deal also includes 15 percent of revenues for any gas recovered from beneath the ground.

With numbers like that, and with Sullivan County sitting over the same geological formation as Delaware County?the Marcellus Shale-it’s not surprising that the gas issue has now officially caught the attention of Sullivan County lawmakers.

At a meeting at the government center on May 8, lawmaker Jodi Goodman said, “I’ve had more calls on this than any other topic. I’m talking about gaming; I’m talking about taxes.” With those words, Goodman kicked off an introductory lesson on gas well drilling.

Dr. Bill Pammer, commissioner of the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Community, explained the basics of gas drilling in the region, which are well known to many residents in the region, especially in Wayne County and the western part of Sullivan County.

Pammer talked of the fracking process and the inherent environmental dangers, and he enhanced his presentation with photographs: one showed a grid of what appeared to be hundreds of gas wells in a wild, remote section of Wyoming. Another showed the clearing that is now occurring in the Allegheny National Forest to provide flat open spaces of up to six acres to accommodate drilling equipment. He said drilling “typically involves a series of drill pads over a large acreage for increased extraction; we’re seeing a goal of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 drilling pads in a geographic area.”

There were many questions from lawmakers about how much control local municipalities could bring to bear on drilling operations. For instance, could the towns pass drilling ordinances to help mitigate the cost of repairing local roads torn up by hundreds of drilling-related vehicles?

Also, the drilling processes are exempt from the Federal Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws, but are they subject to the New York State Environmental Quality Review (SEQRA) process, which is also intended to protect the environment?

County staff and officials are working to find the answers to these and many related questions. Lawmakers all agreed that any constraints on the drilling process would have to come not from the county level but from the town level. Near the end of the session, lawmaker Leni Binder said there are things the towns could do to buy the county time to study the issues, which she called “essential.”

Lawmaker Alan Sorensen suggested that the county develop a model ordinance that the towns could adopt if they so chose.

Lawmaker David Sager said, “We do have to slow this train down so that nobody’s hurt and the environment isn’t hurt.”

Later that evening, at the town meeting in Bethel, residents sparked a conversation about the gas drilling issue. After discussing the matter for about 15 minutes, supervisor Dan Sturm said he would consult with the town attorney to see if a moratorium on gas wells was possible and advisable.

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