New York Cautious in Embrace of Fracking

A Senate Committee is holding hearings Tuesday on the environmental and public health risks associated with natural gas drilling. Once an obscure issue, natural gas has recently become a major cause of concern. That’s because of a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” It has been linked with water contamination and a host of other problems. It’s also a powerful tool for tapping America’s gas reserves, and the gas industry says it can be done safely.

While other states like Pennsylvania and Texas have taken a 'drill now, investigate later' approach, Albany is doing the opposite: There’s an extensive environmental review of fracking underway, and legislators have proposed a host of bills to limit the practice.

The Northeast’s big natural gas reserve is the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York’s Catskills, about 100 miles northeast of New York City, all the way to West Virginia. The shale is thought to contain up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it possibly the richest unconventional reserve in the United States. But geologists say only a small portion of the gas in the Marcellus will ever make it to the pipeline. By one estimate, 15 trillion cubic feet of Marcellus gas is “recoverable.” The Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension estimates the Marcellus could meet America’s total demand for natural gas for 15 years.

The boom in Marcellus drilling was set off in 2004, a Texas company, Range Resources, drilled a test well outside of Pittsburgh. Range demonstrated that the Marcellus could be tapped successfully. How? Fracking, in combination with horizontal, or directional drilling, in which the drill bit makes a turn to the side after first achieving the desired depth. Since then, almost 3,000 Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, and nearly 7,000 permits have been issued.

But there’s no Marcellus Shale drilling in New York. While most states have taken a frack-first, regulate-later approach, New York is doing the opposite. In July 2008, then-Governor David Paterson ordered a full review of existing drilling regulations. A year and a half later, the Department of Environmental Conservation put out a Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, almost 1,000 pages long. In late 2010, Governor Paterson ordered an extension to the review process, while also opening the door to some forms of low-volume fracking. A new draft review is due at the end of summer, 2011.

The delay has not only frustrated energy companies, it’s also given opponents of fracking time to marshal their forces.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg commissioned a study on the likely impact of drilling near the Catskill mountain reservoirs that are the source of most city drinking water, and concluded fracking poses an unacceptable risk. The state has since pledged to allow drilling within the watershed only under the strictest safety standards.

In many communities living above the Marcellus Shale, the promise of economic development has not eclipsed concerns over water safety. A poll commissioned by the environment-minded Civil Society Institute suggests widespread concern about gas drilling among New Yorkers who are aware that it’s an issue.

After a string of mishaps, Pennsylvania in 2010 tightened the rules on well casing and sealing, and increased inspections. But the state’s new Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, has said he’ll take a more industry friendly approach to regulation. He recently opened state forests to drilling, after his predecessor had banned it. And Corbett has also curbed the power of inspectors to issue violations, according to emails obtained by ProPublica.

A little-known intergovernmental agency, the Delaware River Basin Commission, has sway over the Delaware River watershed, including gas-rich parts of Pennsylvania and New York. In the fall of 2010, the Delaware River Basin Commission issued draft regulations focusing on water quality. After public comment ends on April 15, the Commission will begin work on final regulations.

In Congress, Representatives Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Diana DeGette (D-C), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) have proposed legislation to force companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. But this stands little chance of passage as long as Republicans control the House. A spokesman for Hinchey said the Congressman is “seeking out other legislative mechanisms and executive branch actions that would accomplish the same ends.”

Last year, the EPA initiated a study on fracking and drinking water, using a $1.9 million grant from Congress. Initial findings are expected in late 2012. The Department of Interior may soon require disclosure of fracking chemicals when public lands are drilled.

President Obama’s March 30th energy policy speech emphasized “responsible development practices for natural gas,” including disclosure of fracking chemicals and technical assistance to state regulators. But Obama has made it clear he sees natural gas development as part of his strategy to reduce emissions. And on the day of his speech, many companies invested in shale gas drilling saw their share prices rise.