Water is our most Precious Resource

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Panel on Gas Drilling, March 8, 2010 SUNY New Paltz

After the high emotions and uber-packed auditoriums of the DEC's community-based forums of Fall '09, tonight's Forum on the Future of Gas Drilling in New York State was relaxed, with an engaged crowd ranging from my 6 year old son to college students to concerned grandparents.

Presented by Jonathan Schein, of Schein Media, the forum was presented as a means of educating residents about the issues surrounding Hydraulic Fracturing (otherwise known as Hydrofracking, or fracking) to "liberate" natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in New York state, so that they can make an informed decision regarding the security of New York's energy, environmental, and economic future.

Noting that only .1% of the energy produced in 2009 came from Solar Energy, Mr. Schein pointed out that it might be two to three decades before renewable energy becomes a truly viable alternative to fossil fuels. However, he failed to mention hydropower, a huge resource in New York state, biomass, wind, or other forms of renewable energy.

His first question to the panel was, "Where does the leadership come from?" concerning hydofracking in New York.

Stuart Gruskin of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) responded that Governor Paterson has already said, "Think First, Drill Later" and to this end, the DEC is taking it's time to consider all potentially damaging aspects of hydrofracking. It is a scientific issue, not a political issue. New York State has a great reputation for protecting its environment, and that will not change.

Mr. Schein's second question was, "Is the Draft Supplemental good enough?" (The Draft Supplemental, aka "dSGEIS" is an 800 page document produced by the DEC in October 2009 which was supposed to set the standards for Hydrofracking in New York)

Scott Rotruck, VP of Chesapeake Energy, said that these forums have been imperative conversations in protecting the environment, and that drilling will be successful because of the process.

Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), responded that because of New York's unique position concerning its environmental review process, we have the opportunity to take our time examining and managing the risks before the first drill goes in the ground. The dSGEIS has significant gaping holes, and New York is legally required to fill in those holes before drilling.

Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper said that we need to realize that hydrofracking will be the industrialization of our landscape, and this inherently is an unstable process. Having looked around the country at how the regulatory process has been dealt with, he found only circular reasoning which benefits the gas industry. Cumulative Impact (the effect on infrastructure, public health, and the environment) may be difficult to predict, but we cannot afford to take a chance with it.

James Gennaro, Chairman of the New York City Council Environmental Protection Committee,
commented that truly, hydrofracking should be federally regulated.

Mr. Gruskin of the NYDEC responded to these criticisms by saying "that permits will only be issued when drilling will enhance and enliven both private property owners, the public, and the environment. The sDGEIS was designed as a context for environmentalists to come back to us and guide us. The DEC understands that they are beholden both to the laws, and the public acceptance standard. What's great about New York State, is that it has the ability to go above and beyond what the federal standards are in many different contexts. For instance, we can require that the drilling adhere to the Safe Drinking Water Act. There is a real need to be cautious, and it's early to say that the sDGEIS has failed."

Mr. Schein's third question concerned a major divide between upstate and downstate residents, concerning the rights of landowners in the NYC watershed to drill on their property.

Councilman Gennaro replied that the reality is, that these people are living in an area that provides water to 9,000,000 people. It is the only unfiltered water supply in the country that has any development whatsoever. Residents who want to drill need to respect that they are living in this unique situation.

Mr. Gruskin responded, saying that 70% of the NYC watershed is owned privately, and the state owns 4x as much land as NYC. The DEC expends great energy trying to make sure that the watershed is preserved. From the DEC's perspective, there are 2 things that need to be addressed: 1) how to develop a protocol to protect water from contamination, and 2) make a complete study of the effects of industrialization. The DEC has to take into consideration the people who own private land in the watershed as well as NYC.

Mr. Rotruck mentioned that Chesapeake Energy holds the only rights to drilling in the NYC watershed, and promised that his company would not drill in the NYC watershed, as "a business decision". He talked about how hydrofracking is the least intrusive way of obtaining energy. (However, he consistently refuses to address Chesapeake Energy's policy's on Cumulative Impact.)

Wes Gillingham stated that the important reality to remember about this whole conversation, is that it's about communities trying to take control of their health and safety. For instance, In Onondoga County, they have voted to ban drilling in their own watershed, and have petitioned Governor Paterson to ban drilling in their county.

Kate Sinding deviated from the question, and stated that there is still no mention of renewables in Chesapeake's conversation, or Wastewater or Cumulative Impact. Wastewater is heavily contaminated with NORM (naturally occurring radioactive materials), heavy metals, biological contaminants, and whatever chemicals are injected to begin with. Toxicologists call it the the “worst water ever seen” and it is generated in massive quantities. Something has to be done with it. How and where will it be treated?

Finishing the forum was Congressman Maurice Hinchey of the 22nd District of New York, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. He has served 30 years in office.

Congressman Hinchey educated us about a 2004 study by the Department of the Interior, the results of which "proved" that it is not necessary for gas drillers to disclose the chemicals they use to drill. The subsequent 2005 Energy Policy Act altered the Safe Drinking Water Act to exclude this industry from culpability. The purpose of this was to speed up the drilling process, and make it more profitable.

Mr. Hinchey is not opposed to drilling, as long as it is safe and secure. It needs vigorous oversight and regulations to protect the environment and public health.

The toxic chemicals in fracking water include agents which are toxic to human health, via water and air. The sDGEIS does not even begin to address this toxicity, as the DEC failed to conduct the required analysis. Consequently, this document should not be approved by the governor.

"We need to hold the gas industry accountable for its drilling practices," he said. To this end, he co-authored the The American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Frack Act), which would require Hydrofracking to be federally regulated, and would require drilling companies to disclose the chemicals used in Fracking water. This bill passed the House of Representatives in June, 2009, but is awaiting the floor in the Senate.

Mr. Hinchey strongly believes that the federal government should be increasing its investments and incentives for clean technologies, as he has been doing in New York. He estimates that he will have created 1,000 new jobs by the end of 2011 in the area of renewable energy.

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