Senate extends moratorium

BY Albert Amateau

In response to demands by local elected officials and environmental advocates worried about the impact of natural gas drilling on New York City’s drinking water supply, the state Senate last Tuesday voted to extend the state moratorium to May 2011 on issuing gas drilling permits.

The state Assembly is likely to pass the moratorium extension after the new session begins on September 15. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver issued a statement supporting the moratorium the day after the Senate’s 48 to nine vote.

For more than two years, elected officials and activists have been concerned about the effect on the supply of drinking water by hydrofracture gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation 3,000 feet below the surface of New York’s Southern Tier of counties as well as adjacent counties in Pennsylvania.

The process known as “hydrofracking” involves drilling into the formation and horizontally injecting millions of gallons of water laced with highly toxic chemicals under ultra-high pressure to fracture the shale and release natural gas trapped in the rock.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation last year issued an 800-page draft generic environmental impact statement on proposed rules for hydrofracture drilling that critics say were largely written by the drilling industry.

But concern about the impact on the Catskill-Delaware watershed that supplies 90 percent of the city’s drinking water prompted the D.E.C. in April to exclude the watersheds of New York City and of Syracuse from the review. Instead, the agency is requiring drillers in the two watersheds to submit environmental reviews for each well to determine whether mitigation could be developed for potential impact.

The April ruling would make it extremely expensive to drill in the watersheds but elected officials, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and state Senator Tom Duane, called for an outright ban on hydrofracking in the state.

There are currently 58 applications for hydrofracture drilling in the state, none of them in the New York City or Syracuse watersheds.

On August 4, Silver’s statement regarding the state moratorium extension was similar to one he issued in response to the April decision that made watershed drilling impractical.

“I strongly believe New York State should tale no further action towards the approval of permits in any drinking water area anywhere in the state until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes its study of hydrofracking and companies are required to fully disclose all chemicals used in the drilling process,” Silver’s statement last week said. “There is nothing more important than the safety of our water supply and protecting the health and safety of our citizens. We simply cannot move forward until we have all the facts and we will continue to carefully monitor the actions of the Department of Environmental Conservation,” Silver said.

Environmentalists have long been concerned about the chemicals added to the millions of gallons of hydrofracked water. Drilling companies have largely refused to reveal all the chemicals, saying they constituted trade secrets.

The federal E.P.A. has been holding hearings in Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania over the past several months on developing a scope of work for a $1.9 million federal study of hydrofracking impact on groundwater. The next E.P.A. hydrofracking hearing is August 12, in Binghamton, NY in the Southern Tier.

Over the past few years, northeastern Pennsylvania, where the practise is common, water supplies in several communities have been contaminated by natural gas and hydrofracking water recovered from gas wells. According to a report by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, gas drillers in the state committed 1,435 violations in the past 30 months, 952 of which were likely to harm the environment.

In July, the Delaware River Basin Commission, which sets policy on water use in the river and includes New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania members, met in West Trenton, NJ where supporters of fracking, mostly property owners who hope to earn big money leasing land to drilling companies, confronted opponents.

According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article, property owners at the West Trenton meeting carried signs that read, “I support safe drilling – kiss my gas,” and an anti-drilling advocate held up a sign reading, “Not so fast, natural gas.”

A New York Common Cause report said that in 2009 the gas industry contributed $650,000 to campaign funds of state elected officials and from January to July of this year the industry put more than $1 million into state campaign funds.