Gas drilling awareness focus at Andes meeting

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By Matthew J. Perry
The Andes Library sponsored an informational event, “What You Need To Know About Gas Drilling In the Catskills," Saturday that featured Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Anne Saxon-Hersh, a writer.
Despite the neutrality of the event’s title, the presentation was a firm stance against the practices and intentions of gas drilling companies, and the message could have been condensed to “get informed, or else.”
The prospect of the drilling industry sprouting up in New York has faded in importance over the past year. Following the nationwide economic crisis, many natural gas companies, reeling from a crash in commodities prices, were forced to slam the brakes on the speculation and land leasing that piqued local concerns in the summer of 2008.
To further complicate matters, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) placed a statewide moratorium on gas drilling that will not be lifted until the agency updates and releases a new General Environmental Impact State-ment (GEIS). This document will provide the guidelines for the use of new drilling technology and facilitate gas extraction.
The new GEIS was expected by the summer of 2009 at the latest, but so far, the DEC has not produced the document or lifted the moratorium.
Nevertheless, many obser-vers of the industry are convinced that an aggressive “shale play” is still in store for Delaware County and the rest of the Catskill Region. Gillingham, whose organization has lobbied extensively against what it considers the lax regulation of the industry, sought to alert Saturday’s crowd to the perils of unpreparedness.
He noted that two shale formations that have made the gas industry bullish, the Marcellus and Utica shales, overlap beneath Delaware County.
“We’re going to see industrial development like we haven’t had before,” Saxon-Hersh said.
Indeed, the gas industry, along with DEC officials, has sought to soothe local concerns about drilling. DEC commissioner Peter Grannis has testified that his agency is not about to stand in the way of industrial development, not least because it has the means to carefully regulate wells and assure their safety. He has often cited the existence of thousands of wells statewide and the infrequency of accidents to allay the concerns of residents and environmental activists.
Gillingham raised several concerns about that sanguine view. For one, much of the technology that will facilitate the shale play, most notably hydraulic “fracking,” which is essential to collecting a high yield of gas in the mountains, has a short track record.
He claims that computer models, more than actual performance, are the basis for the claims that drilling can be safe. Insufficient regulations are in place to keep the industry honest, he said, citing the numerous federal regulations the industry has won exemptions from over the last several decades. “Just because it isn’t regulated it doesn’t mean the waste isn’t hazardous.”
As to the lack of accidents, he cast doubt on the reliability of the records. Some claimants are bought off, he said, agreeing never to tell their stories publicly after receiving cash restitution.
“I don’t’ want to deal with an industry that has a history of lying,” he said. “They want a well in every possible place to get out as much gas as possible.”
No one in the room argued that gas drilling in the region could be stopped. There was some debate over how much power towns and county officials will have, ultimately, to protect themselves through zoning laws and taxation.
Gillingham argued that beyond the real property tax and maintenance of public roads, municipalities have little power to wield on their own. Inter-municipality alliances could be helpful, but hope for strong, efficient regulation, he said, is dim unless local residents get up to speed on the issue and lobby their state representatives for stronger state control over drilling.
Audience response to the presentation varied widely. “We’re already polluted up here,” said one woman. Others accused Gillingham of employing “scare tactics.”
Andes resident Denise Norris argued that each town must search aggressively for its own means to protect itself and its residents. “We can’t stop the gas,” she said. “We need to explore if the individual towns and Delaware County can come up with their own regulations.”