After taking over 20,000 public comments, more than on any issue they have ever faced, New York environmental officials are getting ready for the final phase of work on their proposal to allow hydrofracking of natural gas in the state.
Wednesday was the deadline for people to make their opinions heard on a draft of the state’s environmental impact statement and proposed regulations governing the hydraulic gas drilling process. The first task facing state environmental officials is to cull any new information from those comments after three years of debate and two rounds of hearings.
They have not said when they expect to be done fine-tuning the environmental document and rules, beyond saying that the work will be completed this year.
Across the state, a sharp divide was evident this week on whether state officials need to do further study and perhaps hold another round of public review, with environmental groups arguing yes and the gas industry pressing for a quick resolution.
Gas industry representatives want changes in the state’s proposed rules, criticizing them as overly restrictive and based on unrealistic worst-case situations. TheIndependent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which represents more than 400 individuals and businesses in the industry, argues that the restrictions need to be eased so as not to limit development of gas wells and the economic benefits it says will result.
Nonetheless, the association says it wants the state to speed its decision so that new drilling permits can be issued this year.
Major environmental groups that hired their own technical experts to review the state proposal argue that the state is far from done. Looming large, they say, is the lack of a detailed plan to dispose of the millions of gallons of wastewater per well that the new drilling will produce.
The drilling, known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting chemically treated water underground to break up shale formations and release natural gas.
Also missing, those groups say, is an assessment of potential health risks from fracking operations, and of the cumulative effects of multiple drilling sites on both humans and the environment.
“There are still real gaps,” said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
These views, and many more — including the argument that fracking should be banned — run through the comments submitted to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. State officials said the level of public participation was unprecedented.
“It’s a huge public exchange,” said Val Washington, a former deputy commissioner at the department who oversaw the first draft of the state’s environmental impact statement on hydrofracking. “More and more people see it as a vote for or against, and not as a fact-finding process.”
Joseph Martens, the state environmental commissioner, issued a statement on Wednesday promising that “if high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, it will move forward with the strictest standards in the nation to ensure New York’s drinking water and other natural resources are thoroughly protected.”
But the Independent Oil and Gas Association argues that the state’s proposed regulations take an alarmist view. For example, in considering the impact on air quality, it says, state regulators assumed that diesel trucks at drilling sites would idle constantly. But state law already prohibits idling for more than five consecutive minutes, it says.
Nonetheless, the industry is in a hurry to get started, as are many landowners who envision royalties on gas sales from the production on the properties.
“We have received notice of pending foreclosure and our property taxes increase with local budgets and remain unpaid,” Susan Dorsey, whose family owns 33 acres in Chenango County, wrote in one public comment. “Talk about sustainability! I would like to be able to sustain! I wish first and foremost to be allowed to harvest the wealth that I am sitting on, in order to preserve our household intact.”
New York City officials, who scored a big victory when the state decided to ban drilling in and near the watersheds upstate that supply drinking water to the city, said they were worried about one outstanding issue.
In their submitted comments, they asked for buffer zones of up to seven miles between drilling sites and underground aqueducts and tunnels — mainly out of worry that seismic activity resulting from hydrofracking could damage the infrastructure that carries water to the city. The state is proposing a 1,000-foot buffer.