City wants ban on gas drilling
By Matthew J. Perry
After months of silence, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) made an opening demand last week for harsh restrictions on natural gas drilling in the city’s vast watershed. The agency is also seeking a central role in the review of leases near its holdings, and has called for public hearings to be held for every proposed drilling site.
DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd circulated a letter to state officials that spoke to grave concerns about the environmental impacts of gas drilling and the threat it poses to the water that fills upstate reservoirs.
The city’s unfiltered water collection system, a rarity in the country, was described in the letter as “a unique resource requiring special protection.” It was also revealed that the DEP was not brought into conversation with other government agencies—in particular the DEC—until the middle of last month.
Press statements from both the DEP and DEC, which oversees gas drilling in the state, stopped short of pointing fingers or hinting at legal jousting between the agencies. But the DEP’s new voice is a forecast for extended debate between competing interests.
Commissioner Lloyd’s letter suggested creating a mile-wide perimeter around every reservoir that would be off-limits to natural gas extraction. That proposal is modest in comparison with another floated a state councilman from Queens, who seeks a ban on drilling throughout the city’s watershed. Some environmental groups, such as Hudson Riverkeeper, are supporting the proposal for a ban, which Riverkeeper described as the “next logical step” in a press release from last week.
The DEP’s statement, while hardly surprising, greatly complicates the ‘gas rush’ that has many landowners hoping for big payoffs. While speaking to concerns over invasive drilling practices and resulting waste, it also invokes the specter of a powerful city protecting its interests at the expense of struggling upstate communities.
Proponents of drilling argue that exploration of the Marcellus Shale, which stretches into four states and is located up to 9,000 feet below the surface, is not a threat to sources of drinking water, since gas wells drill so far beneath the aquifers. Even moderate voices that acknowledge the city’s need to protect its resources have voiced hope that hydraulic ‘fracking,’ the method for extracting natural gas, could be a viable option in the Catskills.
“I think it could be done safely,” said Assemblyman Clifford Crouch. “There’s real economic opportunity here. But all stakeholders need to take a part in the process and have oversight.”
Environmental activists were encouraged by the DEP’s statement, which could be seen as an opening to address a wider scope of concern. “We support any cautionary measure,” says Sierra Club’s Roger Downs, while noting that his organization has not yet called for a drilling ban throughout the watershed. “There needs to be proper risk assessment and more focus on goals rather than a timeline.”
The goal in mind is potable water with no direct threats of contamination. Now the DEC and DEP will begin debate on what constitutes a threat. Other regulatory bodies, such as the interstate Susquehanna River Basin Commission, will weigh in on the matter of where water for drilling—perhaps as much as one million gallons per well—can be taken from.
Should any contamination of the reservoirs occur, the city’s Memorandum Of Agreement could be compromised, which could then require the development of a filtration system. Current price estimates for such an engineering behemoth run as high as $10 billion, or roughly equivalent to optimistic estimates of revenues from drilling.
Some local interests hope that deals can be struck that maintain the status quo of water while keeping open the chance for prosperity through deals with gas companies.
The Central New York Landowners Coalition, which currently counts more than 50,000 acres among its members, is still intending to send a master lease out to bid later this year. “CNYLA is in favor of keeping the city water supply as clean as it is now, while still allowing landowners to drill for gas in Delaware County,” said the coalition’s Garth Battista via email. “We think a way can be found.”
Battista maintained that landowner coalitions could, though tailoring clauses in the leases, address environmental concerns outside the scope of federal and state regulations. But he did not rule out a fair arrangement even if the city were to insist on drilling bans inside the watershed.
“I think if [New York City] wants to create a one-mile, no-drill buffer zones around the reservoirs, they should do it the way they have already conducted their conservation easement program and land acquisition program — buying out oil and gas rights from willing sellers, and paying fair market value. Otherwise you’d have a whole new “taking,” and no one wants that.”
Former Margaretville resident Herman Gottfried, an attorney who represented landowners displaced by the creation of the Pepacton Reservoir in the early 1950s, lived through an earlier version of this scenario. His clients collected claims for direct and indirect damages as five towns were drowned and the economy of the area was altered irreparably.
Gottfried, now a spry 98 years old, does not look back on that time as a tragedy. “The city wanted water, and got it,” he said. “And there was fair compensation for my clients, and me as well,” he told the News Monday from his summer home on Cape Cod.