DEC Opens Eighty Percent of N.Y. to Fracking

Reversing his agency’s previous position, New York State’s chief environmental regulator now recommends an outright ban on high-volume hydrofracking within the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

Joseph Martens, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, made the announcement July 1 just before the agency released major portions of its heavily revised rules for the controversial natural gas drilling technique.

Martens, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January, also said the DEC would drop its recommendation to allow drilling within state forests, wildlife areas and parklands. It also seeks for the first time a ban on fracking in primary aquifers.

The proposed new fracking bans represent a major departure from the DEC’s 2009 supplemental generic environmental impact statement.

“We know there were inadequacies in the 2009 SGEIS,” particularly in its treatment of the likely socio-economic impacts of a fracking boom in upstate New York, Martens told a press conference audience in Albany.

The announcement drew strong reactions from drilling opponents.

The environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper called on the DEC to follow the New Jersey Legislature’s recent example and extend the fracking ban statewide.

“This is a clear signal by the Cuomo Administration that we’re creating a roadmap for hydrofracking to go forward in New York,” said Wes Gillingham, the group’s program director.

Richard Lippes, a Buffalo attorney who rose to prominence in the Love Canal toxic chemical case in the late 1970s, called Martens’ announcement “a step in the right direction,” though one that does not go far enough.

“I wonder why outright ban is necessary for folks in New York City and Syracuse but not the rest of the state,” Lippes said.

But Lippes praised the advisory panel Martens has assembled to help complete the details of fracking regulation in New York, saying it was far superior to a similar advisory panel in Pennsylvania, which is stocked with gas industry insiders.

“Clearly, the advisory board in New York attempts to assure that the environmental community is represented,” Lippes added.

Martens released most of the revised 2011 SGEIS July 1, but noted that it would be amended in late July to include conclusions about socio-economic issues reached by a private consulting firm, Ecology & Environment Inc. of Buffalo.

After the draft SGEIS is completed on or about Aug. 1, the DEC will open a 60-day public comment period. Then it will review all comments and incorporate responses, as necessary, into a final SGEIS.

The provisions in the final document will then be codified into formal regulations. Previously, the DEC had said such regulations were not necessary. Martens said that writing well drilling permit conditions in formal state rules was a “belt and suspenders” precaution.

The DEC will begin accepting permit applications after the final SGEIS is completed in several months, Martens said. It is “highly unlikely” permits would be granted this year, he added.

When asked whether permits would be considered and possibly even granted before the rule-making process was finished, Martens quickly answered, “Yes.”

Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper said that stance confirms that the DEC is committed to opening the door to fracking throughout most of New York State despite the fact that cities, regions, states and foreign countries are turning to outright fracking bans.

Martens said that “upwards of 80 percent” of New York’s natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale area would be available for fracking under the recommendations he described at the press conference.

The most common form of modern high-volume fracking involves a combination of horizontal drilling and the use of up to 4 million gallons of water, along with chemicals, in each well. Water that flows back to the surface after fracking, typically 1 million or more gallons per well, is extremely salty and is often laced with radioactive elements and other dangerous compounds.

At the July 1 press conference, Martens acknowledged that the DEC lacks sufficient staff to process a flood of fracking applications.

Martens said his advisory panel would recommend funding to support hiring an appropriate number of new environmental regulators to handle the demand. He said if the DEC does not obtain additional staff,  a backlog of well permit applications could develop.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York said they would withhold comment until they had a chance to read the full DEC document. But in a prepared statement issued June 30, IOGA-NY spokesman Brad Gill said:

“IOGA of New York looks forward to reviewing the SGEIS to determine if the protections outlined by the state Department of Environmental Conservation strike a fair balance between protecting New York’s environment and allowing the expansion of natural gas exploration in New York’s Southern Tier.”

Peter Mantius

Peter Mantius

Peter Mantius is a reporter in New York. He covered business, law and politics at The Atlanta Constitution from 1983-2000. He has also served as the editor of business weeklies in Hartford, CT, and Long Island. He is the author of Shell Game (St. Martin’s Press 1995), a nonfiction book on Saddam Hussein’s secret use of a bank office in Atlanta to finance billions of dollars in arms purchases from Western countries before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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