Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
Department of Environmental Conservation Chief Joseph Martens submitted to nearly three hours of intense questioning by members of a New York State Assembly committee on an issue that has inflamed passions like few others: high volume hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as 'fracking.'
A mild-mannered former leader of a conservation group, Martens kept his cool, but must have felt some discomfort, playing the part of fracking's defender. Even as he assured Assembly members his agency could force the gas industry to drill safely, Martens was repeatedly interrupted by angry members of the public. As Martens took his leave, one yelled, "God have mercy on your soul!"
Outbursts of incivility notwithstanding, several issues came to the fore that will likely continue to draw scrutiny during the review process:
Many of the questions around fracking are connected with public health impacts, such as recent “such as the potential contamination of private water wells” in Pennsylvania. Martens said DOH is very much involved in the regulations DEC is writing. The agency may come under pressure in the coming weeks to show that it is preparing to meet the challenges of fracking.
Assembly members criticized DEC's Socio-Economic Impact Analysis (done by an outside firm), for relying industry-provided statistics, and failing to fully examine potential job losses caused by fracking - in addition to the economic benefits of gas drilling. Martens responded by saying that the report deliberately offered both high-end and low-end projections. Members did not seem impressed with his statement that it would be harder to assess likely job losses (in areas like tourism and farming) than job gains (in areas like well servicing.) Jeanette Barth, a former economist for the MTA, has raised a number of questions about the way the Socio-Economic Impact Analysis was conducted.
Paying for Oversight and Remediation
Some of the biggest unanswered questions about DEC's fracking plans center around funding — for day-to-day oversight and for disaster response and remediation. Martens estimates DEC will need to hire 140 new staffers just to process the early drilling applications. A panel has been appointed to examine various options, including a severance tax and/or bonding. Martens said he expects to have recommendations in early November. However, he may have provided an early clue about his intentions by repeatedly mentioning Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's bonding plan, without specifically endorsing it.
Clarification: WNYC originally stated that there were reports of links to barium poisoning in Pennsylvania. That is not entirely accurate. There are concerns about potential contamination in wells in the state.