DEP calls for watershed gas drilling prohibition

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By Brian Sweeney
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has requested a prohibition on any gas drilling in the city’s upstate watershed.
The action by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was made last week in response to its review of the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement released in September by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC is the sole agency responsible for overseeing gas drilling in the state.
The DEP contends that the potential for damage to the city’s drinking water supply necessitates a drilling prohibition in the watershed.
 “Based on the latest science and available technology, as well as the data and limited analysis presented by the DEC, high-volume hydrofracking and horizontal drilling pose unacceptable threats to the unfiltered fresh water supply of nine million New Yorkers,” said Acting DEP Commissioner Steven W. Lawitts in a press release last week.
“New York City has invested $1.5 billion to protect the watershed and prevent degradation of the water supply, and to maintain its Filtration Avoidance Determination.  The known and unknown impacts associated with drilling simply cannot be justified,” his statement continued.
 New York City has been granted a Filtration Avoidance Determination by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 1997. In order to remain in compliance, the city has enacted a number of measures to protect it water sources. The most controversial approach has been the purchase of thousands of acres in the watershed from willing sellers. Once purchased (or if a conservation easement is conveyed), the property can never be developed.
City officials estimate it would cost about $10 billion to construct a filtration plant for its water system.
The city also called on the DEC to rescind the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, saying that the document does not adequately address the risks of drilling in the New York City watershed, which supplies drinking water for nine million New Yorkers. See related stories.
The natural gas issue has taken on growing importance in recent years with advances in the horizontal drilling technique known as hydrofracking that will allow access to the deep gas deposits known as the Marcellus Shale formation. The Marcellus Shale runs through parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York and offers enormous potential for gas drilling.
New York State has a de facto moratorium while the DEC has been drafting new regulations for the industry. Advocates of gas drilling see the potential for a huge economic impact and feel that the state has ample safeguards in place.

Comment period expiring
The DEC’s public comment period on the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement expires on December 31. DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said it would be inappropriate to comment on the city’s request at this time.
The Delaware County Board of Supervisors this month to support drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale on the condition that the state’s Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement addresses environmental concerns with sound science and regulatory safeguards.
Town of Middletown Supervisor Len Utter predicted that a ban on gas drilling in watershed could lead to significant litigation if landowners try legal means to receive compensation for lost “mineral rights.”
Supervisor Utter said that while it would be difficult to determine the potential value lost by homeowners in the event of a drilling ban, “There would undoubtedly be a group that would be looking into starting a lawsuit. I’ve heard enough comments about this.”
Both Mr. Roy and DEP spokesman Michael Saucier declined to comment on the mineral rights issue. Mr. Roy pointed out that approximately 70 percent of land in the watershed is privately owned.
He pointed out that there are approximately 13,000 active oil and gas wells in the state. He said the primary difference in drilling in the Marcellus Shale is the volumes of water involved. Mr. Roy said that previous hydrofracking operations utilize an average of 80,000 to 100,000 gallons of water per well. Because of the longer bore necessary for the horizontal drilling, in the Marcellus Shale there is the potential for millions of gallons of water to be used for each well, he explained.
Mr. Roy said it difficult to predict how long the DEC’s review of public comments will take because of the thousands of comments that must be considered.
Aerial view of gas drilling site in Pennsylvania: by Dick SanfordAerial view of gas drilling site in Pennsylvania: by Dick Sanford