Activists, pols say Paterson watered down fracking ban

By Albert Amateau

In the last executive action of his administration, Governor David Paterson vetoed a six-month moratorium on hydrofracture gas drilling, known as fracking, in New York State.

Instead of the broad moratorium that environmental advocates and local elected officials have been demanding, Paterson issued an executive order on Dec. 11 imposing a temporary ban on horizontal fracking.

Governor Paterson’s executive order, which does not cover shorter, vertical fracking wells, imposes the less-comprehensive drilling ban until July 1, 2011. However, environmental advocates have suggested that because Paterson’s term as the state’s chief executive ends Dec. 31, his executive order would also expire on that date.

The vetoed moratorium, which passed both the state Assembly and the state Senate, would have been valid as a state law until May 15, 2011.

Environmental opponents, including a group known as Frack Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as local state legislators, protested the veto on Dec. 13 in front of the Governor’s Manhattan office on Third Ave.

“I am disappointed that Governor Paterson has decided to veto such important legislation and has instead opted for a scenario that creates an easily exploitable loophole,” said state Senator Liz Krueger in a Dec. 13 statement.

“This legislation was drafted to ensure that we put a temporary hold on all drilling that could do irreparable harm to areas of the state,” Krueger said. “The executive order that the governor signed gives us some delay on some types of drilling, but it still leaves the state vulnerable to overzealous gas companies who wish to make up for the ban on horizontal drilling by increasing the number of vertical wells.”

The process involves drilling into the Marcellus shale formation that lies beneath the 27 Southern Tier counties of New York State near the Pennsylvania border, including the six counties that comprise the New York City watershed, which supplies 90 percent of the city’s drinking water, all of it unfiltered.

The wells are first drilled down vertically between 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet to the shale formation and then horizontally for thousands of feet in order to inject millions of gallons of water under high pressure and laced with a cocktail of toxic chemicals to fracture the shale and release methane gas trapped in the rock.

Opponents of fracking contend the process poses unacceptable risks to groundwater. The Bloomberg administration and the City Council last year called for a ban on fracking in the New York City watershed, specifically. However, the drilling moratorium that Paterson vetoed, as well as his executive order that replaces it, apply to hydrofracture drilling throughout the state.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State has insisted that fracking has been done without risk of harming the environment. Moreover, the association contends that a fracking ban would eliminate $1 million in annual state revenues from drilling fees and would risk the loss of 5,000 industry jobs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in lease payments and royalties to landowners and tens of millions in dollars in tax revenues to local towns and counties would be threatened by a fracking ban, the association said.

The relatively new fracking process, pioneered by Halliburton, the drilling company, was exempted from most federal restraints in 2005. In September 2009 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued an 800-page supplemental draft generic environmental impact statement on proposed guidelines for hydrofracking. Environmental advocates, however, said the proposed impact statement was largely written by gas companies. The review has not yet been completed.

But in response to the opposition by New York City officials who said fracking posed a danger to the city water supply, the state D.E.C. commissioner issued an executive decision removing both the New York City and the Syracuse watersheds from the environmental review. The decision required gas drillers in those watersheds to undertake supplemental environmental reviews for each well, a process that would increase the cost of each well and discourage drilling in the watersheds.

In addition, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been holding hearings over the course of the past year in connection with a nationwide report assessing the impact of fracking on water supply. The E.P.A. intends to submit testimony to a science panel for a report to be completed in 2012.