2008-08-13 / News

DEP mum on plans for local gas drilling

By Matthew J. Perry
While natural gas thousands of feet below the surface has residents preparing for land men and dreaming of dollar signs, water still creates a great deal of concern in the Catskills, if not conversation. Natural gas is extracted from shale formations, such as the Marcellus Shale running across the southern tier of New York, by way of hydraulic ‘fracing’: hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are pumped into the earth and later return to the surface as wastewater.
The reality of such potential demand would seem to be of paramount interest to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which, under agreement mandated by the federal government, is tasked to protect the quality and supply of drinking water for millions of people.
Yet even after reports stating that leases for gas drilling have been signed within the New York City watershed, the DEP’s official stance lacks specifics. “DEP is aware of the potential impacts oil and gas drilling and production can have on the environment and is watching this developing situation closely,” read a press statement received by the Catskill Mountain News on Monday.

Water protection
“We will be working closely with our state partners to ensure any exploration or drilling activities are conducted in an appropriate manner that is protective of the watershed and water quality both now and well into the future,” said the DEP.
The ‘state partner’ that has received the most scrutiny is the Department of Environ-mental Conservation (DEC), which serves a dual role of facilitating the lucrative business of mineral exploration and regulating its environmental impacts. What interplay might exist between the two agencies is uncertain. A DEC spokesperson on Monday also offered assurances with few details. “Yes we are working with [the DEP], including providing information on the regulatory program. However, no applications have been received for drilling in the watershed. If any such applications are submitted, we will work closely with NYC to protect the watershed.”
Assuming that signed gas leases eventually will lead to drilling, focus will return to a revised General Environ- mental Impact Statement (GEIS), a document that will receive a major overhaul in the coming months to deal with modern gas drilling and its effects. Again, it is uncertain what influence the DEP and watershed regulators will have as the new GEIS is drafted.
With so few cues coming from the state level, county officials are also not inclined to speak their minds just yet. Delaware County Com- missioner of Watershed Affairs Dean Frazier stated that his department and the board of supervisors have yet to take any position concerning gas drilling. The board is expecting to have a DEC representative address its monthly meeting on August 20; however, the DEC has recently pulled out other scheduled informational meetings— including one set for August 6 in Oneonta— stating that it needs to commit its energies to updating the GEIS.
The cumulative silence is deafening.
Chris Denton, an Elmira attorney working with several landowner coalitions, was willing to speculate on the DEP’s position, or the lack of it. “This is a very complex set of circumstances, and DEP will be feeling political pressure from several directions,” he says. On one hand, the agency has its traditional mission of protecting water for downstate residents. On the other, gas companies willing to spend millions on exploration and extraction, have pulled out large checkbooks and are ready to fill state coffers. “It’s one of the most sensitive positions New York City could be put into,” says Denton.

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