The state Department of Environmental Conservation today made a big change in its protracted process to write new rules for "hydrofracking" (love the word!) -- the process of pumping chemical-laced water underground to break apart rock horizontally and force out the natural gas trapped inside.
DEC didn't outright ban fracking in the 2,000-square-mile area upstate where New York City draws its unfiltered water. But it will now require every single gas well drilled near a city reservoir to apply for its own separate permit and do its own environmental review -- which would be so costly and time-consuming that gas companies would probably rather drill elsewhere. (This also applies to the upstate reservoir where Syracuse gets its water.)
City politicians gushed that this was a huge protection for the 9 million people who drink the unfiltered water from New York's upstate reservoirs -- though some said they won't be satisfied until DEC simply bans fracking in the state. (Bloomberg & Holloway here, Quinn & Gennaro here, Stringer here, Silver here.)
But fracking has always been the subject of a big upstate-downstate divide. And some critics suspect DEC took the city's interests out of the picture so as to neutralize the biggest source of opposition. That's what Catskill Mountainkeeper is saying, and here's Sen. Tom Duane's take:
"While ostensibly this is a step in the right direction to protect the drinking water of many New Yorkers from this risky gas drilling technology, I fear it is a cynical move that will pit New Yorkers against each other. ... Residents in Manhattan and Syracuse, for example, will benefit from this decision while those living in Ithaca and Jamestown will not. This is unacceptable."
Could the Paterson administration really be that sneaky? Click through for more -- and to find out what's in store for the Southern Tier.
Gas companies want to drill deep into the Marcellus shale underlying much of central New York. Plenty of landowners and upstate residents want the jobs, money and taxes it would generate. But fracking has led to environmental problems elsewhere -- fish kills, flaming faucets -- and though the gas industry claims the process keeps getting better, environmentalists hate the idea.
So state government is in the middle. DEC put all Marcellus drilling on hold while it tries to write rules for New York fracking; it is now sifting through 14,000 comments about it, and hopes to have final rules in place by summer or fall.
But as the DN reported in January, DEC rushed out a draft plan last fall that seemed to give short shrift to environmental worries in the city watershed -- and insiders say it was rocketed through the process thanks to pressure from high up in the Paterson administration. DEC's mining division sent its 804-page draft to all the other divisions on a Thursday and Friday, and asked for comments by Monday.
For what it's worth, Paterson told the DN's Glenn Blain and others Monday that "we're not going to worry about time because we're talking about public safety." But it's already becoming a political issue. The DN had to file a FOIL request to get the 128-page opinion of the Watershed Inspector General who works in Andrew Cuomo's office, but once it was out, Cuomo's office agreed that fracking needs more study.
On the other hand, Steve Levy wants to start drilling already.
Chesapeake Energy, the dominant company in New York hydrofracking, has already said it won't drill in the city's watershed because the geological challenges are more difficult than in other parts of the state. On top of that, gas prices are relatively low at the moment, reduce pressure to drill. At an investors conference last week, CEO Aubrey McClendon said, "I can't say I'm disappointed with what's happening in New York because it's kept a lot of gas off the market."
So New York City's voice and money will be taken out of the equation this fall, when DEC announces its supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement for how to drill in the rest of the state -- and when hydrofracking may become an issue in the governor's race.
Goodbye New York City, and hello Southern Tier. Here's the statement that just came in from Chesapeake lawyer Henry Hood:
"We have a relatively minor leasehold position in both [New York City and Syracuse] watersheds and don't plan to drill horizontal wells in either because we don't believe they are prospective for good Marcellus Shale natural gas wells. There are additional details to know about today's announcement, but we are generally supportive of action that will expedite completion of the sGEIS and allow us to start drilling horizontal wells in the Southern Tier, bringing the economic, environmental and energy security benefits to this part of the state."