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Contributed Photo | David Soete

A gas drilling operation in Dimock, PA, showing the drilling rig in place. Though some tout the economic opportunities from tapping the gas-rich Marcellus Shale over which our area sits, others point to Dimock as an example of the environmental problems that the hydrofracking process used in drilling can bring.

Watershed permitting process for gas met with praise downstate, fear upstate

By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY — April 27, 2010 — Should gas drillers ever want to tap into the Marcellus Shale formations underneath northeastern Sullivan County, they’ll likely have to seek special permission from New York State.
On Thursday, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that the new rules now being drafted on horizontal drilling and fracking will not apply to any well permits to be sought in the watersheds for New York City and Syracuse.
Instead, drillers will have to undergo a separate environmental impact review process the DEC will set up in order to protect the two cities’ unfiltered drinking water supplies.
“The portions of the Marcellus Shale where the city’s watershed lies must be treated differently, and the Department of Environmental Conservation’s decision recognizes that crucial fact,” observed NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We firmly believe, based on the best available science and current industry and technological practices, that drilling cannot be permitted in the city’s watershed. We are confident that the additional reviews now required for any drilling proposal in the watershed will lead the state to that same conclusion.”
NYC’s watershed encompasses the entire Town of Neversink and tiny portions of the towns of Liberty and Fallsburg, thanks to the city’s Neversink and Rondout reservoirs.
Drillers have yet to seek permits to drill in any of the affected watersheds, and industry officials have in the past indicated that the area around the Millennium Pipeline (a gas distribution line) in western Sullivan County will be the first to see permit requests. Neversink and environs represent the easternmost extent of the Marcellus Shale and are about 20-30 miles away from the pipeline.
But, as both the DEC and environmental groups have noted, this new rule doesn’t mean drillers won’t be able to look for gas in the watershed.
Indeed, DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis told several media that the agency’s intent was partially to avoid instituting a ban that would likely have resulted in lawsuits from drillers and property owners (the majority of land in NYC’s watershed is privately owned).
Some, however, saw something other than a protection of private property rights.
“The DEC has been crafty; it didn’t ban fracking in the watershed. That would have raised obvious questions about the safety of the process,” stated a press release issued by the Callicoon Center-based Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. “Instead, it created a regulatory black hole that will prevent fracking without prohibiting it. This is akin to a corporation settling a lawsuit by paying hundreds of millions of dollars in fines without admitting wrongdoing.”
Catskill Citizens and fellow local group Catskill Mountainkeeper of Youngsville both decried the DEC plan, wondering why – if drilling requires special attention in the watershed – it doesn’t merit the same outside the watershed.
“Based on what they did say, the regulations governing permitting for gas drilling using hydrofracking in the watersheds will be different, which means that those regulations could even be less rigorous than those that would cover the rest of New York State,” Mountainkeeper said in its press release.
Environmental groups are worried, too, that New York City – a strong supporter of their efforts to ban upstate drilling – will be placated by this move.
“This is an attempt to take the watershed issue off the table without actually dealing with it, to fast-track drilling for the rest of us,” said Mountainkeeper Executive Director Ramsay Adams. “And it’s not even protecting the watersheds. It’s bad on both levels. It’s a really unfortunate turn of events, because it doesn’t address any of the fundamental problems.”
Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, also felt the new rule will negatively affect the situation.
“Today’s announcement by the Department of Environmental Conservation is disturbing in that it adds another layer of regulation on an industry that is already over-regulated,” he said in a press release. “It is hard to understand why the state would make such broad assumptions about the potential environmental impact and then pile more burdensome regulations on an industry with such an outstanding record of safety.”
He argued that while the DEC isn’t calling it a ban, “the result will be the same.”
“It will do irreversible fiscal harm to the local communities that would benefit from tax revenues through drilling, and it will harm landowners who want nothing more than to safely develop their land in a way that’s in the best interest of their families and future generations,” Gill said.
In the meantime, the DEC continues to work 14,000 public comments into its final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), which will regulate gas drilling statewide in areas outside the Syracuse and NYC watersheds. Initially anticipated to be released this spring, that report is now expected by the end of the year.

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