DEC Commissioner says agency is well prepared for a gas rush

By Matthew J. Perry
The New York Assembly Committee of Environmental Conservation held a public hearing in Albany on October 15 to investigate potential impacts of natural gas drilling. Twenty-four witnesses, including high-ranking representatives of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), gas company executives, independent scientists and environmental activists were invited to testify at what became a day-long event.
But the hearing was mainly a referendum on the DEC, the state agency that wields regulatory oversight over gas drilling but also is mandated to expedite the collection of the state’s natural resources. DEC Peter Grannis was the first witness called at 10:30 and he testified until past noon. While being asked dozens of questions by assembly members on a wide variety of topics, his message was consistent: the DEC will be ready to deal with a deluge of drilling applications in 2009, and has the expertise and diligence to prevent accidents and abuses by gas companies.
“I don’t think we’d be here if our permit and monitoring operations were not robust,” Grannis said, noting that the DEC currently oversees the operations of 13,000 wells statewide. “We know what we’re doing.”
Grannis insisted that gas drilling does not pose a threat to anyone’s drinking water, including New York City’s. He also argued that a future proliferation of hydrofracking wells—which can use more than two million gallons of water over their lifespan—would not strain the state’s water resources. But he stated that the DEC should extend its oversight into water districts that lie outside the Susquehanna and Delaware river basins.
Assembly members focused many questions on the General Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) that the DEC is updating to monitor modern drilling technology. The new GEIS will be a blueprint for not just drilling procedures but many other aspects of gas extraction, including the storage and disposal of waste water, rules for capping exhausted wells and setback requirements.
The DEC expects to complete the new GEIS in the spring of 2009. Some assembly members expressed concern that the intervening months will not be enough time for all the potential hazards of drilling to be addressed. Assemblyman Robert Sweeney noted that the original GEIS had taken 12 years to draft.
“We don’t have 12 years to waste,” Grannis responded. “We’re on the fast track here and we’re standing by it.”
Some assembly members were lavish in their praise of Grannis and DEC’s efforts. Others were skeptical of the commissioner’s assurances that communities could count on DEC stewardship. Either way, Grannis stayed on message and portrayed his agency as prepared to work with and also regulate the gas industry. He sometimes provided details, sometimes did not. An assembly member who questioned the motives of gas companies was assured that it was in that industry’s interest to be “good neighbors.”
That argument was echoed by industry representatives. Tom Price, vice president of corporate development for Chesapeake Energy, spun out a scenario that pictured economic resurgence in New York’s southern tier, job creation, heavy tax revenues for municipalities and a fair, transparent and safe relationship between his industry and local residents. His testimony, aiming to define the big picture, was short on critical details and made some assembly members impatient. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton repeatedly asked Price how gas wells would translate into jobs for her constituents.
“It’s very hard getting real numbers from you,” she said.
Price replied that if New Yorkers were less cautious, new wells would already exist and data would be easier to come by.
Rick Kessy of Fortuna Energy pitched a softer sell that praised the DEC’s regulatory system. He declared that his industry shares environmental concerns and views lax safety measures as bad for business. He also testified that once the new GEIS is approved, Fortuna would implement a pilot program in 2009 of only 10 wells, and would not expand operations unless the pilot wells functioned safely.
The gas industry executives completed their testimony at 4 o’clock, and more than half the called witnesses were still waiting their turn. Only five assembly members were still present to hear them. The prevailing impression in the hearing room was of a state agency and a powerful industry moving steadily towards a common goal.