DEC releases draft for gas drilling regs

By Matthew J. Perry
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released last Wednesday a long-awaited draft of its Supplemental General Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) regarding natural gas drilling. While the report’s release does not signal the imminent arrival of drilling pads and water trucks in the Catskills, it is a decisive step towards a new industrial future for the region.
The final draft of the report is expected in 2010. Once it is released, the moratorium on drilling permits, which has been in place since last summer, will be lifted. Public comments on the SGEIS will be accepted until Nov. 30 of this year.
DEC watchdogs, both pro- and anti-drilling, have noted that the agency is proposing tighter regulations than those in other states where modern gas drilling is prevalent.
Garth Battista sits on the steering committee of the Central New York Landowners’ Coalition, which is positioned to put 160,000 acres up to bid. He believes that the DEC has done “a very good job.”
“All in all, it’s the best we could have hoped for — enough restrictions on drilling to keep it safe and honest; enough freedom for the gas companies that they can actually operate in our area,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
But many opponents believe that even these measures will prove inadequate should a full-throttle ‘shale play’ commence.
In New York City, there has been significant outcry over the fact that the city’s watershed system has not been ruled off-limits. While the report recommends buffer zones around reservoirs and underground water tunnels, there is nothing approaching the mile-wide ban around reservoirs that was recommended last year by officials at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP.)
The DEC report includes several checks on past industry practices. The most notable is a requirement for drillers to reveal exactly what chemicals are being used during the hydraulic fracturing—or ‘slick water fracturing’—process. There are also stricter rules governing the use of wastewater pits; it seems likely that in some regions, drill sites will have to use steel tanks instead of pits.
There are also requirements for the testing of residential wells before drilling commences nearby. This condition could be especially important, given that there have been reports of well contamination near drilling sites in Pennsylvania and several Western states.
But these guidelines aren’t enough for some downstate politicians and many environmental groups. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stated in a press release that many of the DEC’s measures are “half-baked” and likely to put the city’s unfiltrated water system “at risk.”
Catskill Mountainkeeper, based in Sullivan County, has raised concerns about the DEC staff’s ability to adequately monitor drilling, wastewater disposal methods, and the extent to which the public will be informed of the industry’s progress.
“The ruling stipulates that each drilling operation will be evaluated as a single event and puts no limitation on the total number of gas wells that could be developed within a specific area,” reads a memo released by Mountainkeeper this week. “This means that there will be no control of the cumulative impact on air, land, water, wildlife or people.”
What is significant about the protest is the present lack of political muscle behind it. So far, no other governing body in New York, including the DEP and the Delaware and Susquehanna River Basin commissions, has indicated that there will be any further fight against the DEC’s document.
“We are urging all elected representatives and residents of New York State to educate themselves as quickly as possible,” Mountainkeeper’s executive director, Ramsay Adams, said in the same notice.  “We have to act now.  This is our last chance to do something to mitigate or stop gas drilling.”
The DEC has not yet scheduled public hearings on the draft SGEIS, but has suggested it will convene some public information sessions before the final draft of the report is issued.
The DEC has made the draft SGEIS available on its Web site. To download all or part of the document, go to http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/58440.html.