DEC Focuses On Reviewing Tens of Thousands of Public Responses to Hydrofracking

Posted February 6, 2012

DEC Panel Wades Through Responses
By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau

The state's hydrofracking advisory panel is in flux as the Department of Environmental Conservation wades through tens of thousands of public responses it received on the much-debated drilling technique.

The work of the panel is considered crucial if the state is to move forward with hydrofracking. It was set to meet three times through April, but now that schedule is under review, said agency spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

"Additional panel meetings were previously scheduled, but we are reviewing that schedule as our primary focus is currently on reviewing the public comments," DeSantis wrote in an email.

The panel is composed of 18 representatives from various groups as well as former and current elected officials. They are tasked with coming up with a new fee structure to generate state revenue from a potential gas-drilling boom.

The panel hasn't met since Dec. 20, and two January meetings were canceled. Since its launch in August, it has met a total of six times behind closed doors and postponed four meetings.

The infrequent schedule stands in stark contrast to the original timeline the DEC laid out for the panel. It called for recommendations on a state-level fee structure for gas drilling to be completed in November; a fee system for local governments was to be completed by February.

Since then, the agency agreed to combine the two sets of recommendations into a single report at the request of committee members. It has lifted any deadlines indefinitely.

"The panel itself generated a lot more questions than answers, so I think (the DEC) wants to give us plenty of time to really scrutinize a lot more aspects of the budgetary considerations," said Rob Moore, a member of the panel and executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

The creation of the committee was announced in conjunction with the DEC's latest set of guidelines and recommendations for gas drilling and high-volume hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale, which spans the state's Southern Tier into the Catskills Region.

The DEC's guidelines generated an unprecedented amount of response during a public comment period, which wrapped up on Jan. 12. So far, the DEC has tallied 46,000 comments and is still in the process of logging others.

High-volume hydrofracking -- the use of a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to fracture shale formations and unlock gas -- is on hold in New York until the DEC responds to the comments and finalizes its review.

But whether the state will move to issue permits immediately after its hydrofracking guidelines are finalized is uncertain -- and the time schedule could rest on the pace of the advisory panel's work.

While the DEC has pledged not to issue more permits than it can properly regulate, it has also acknowledged the need for additional staff and resources at the agency if the drilling technique is given the green light.

Obtaining new resources at the DEC would largely be contingent on the panel coming up with a fee system that could cover the costs. The agency estimates the cost of regulating hydrofracking at about $20 million annually the first five years.

Bob Williams, a Windsor, Broome County, landowner and a member of the panel, said the advisory committee's work has an affect on those looking to lease their gas rights to energy companies.

"From my standpoint, I wish it was moving along faster," said Williams, who represents the pro-drilling Joint Landowners Coalition. "It would be nice if we were moving along faster, because it impacts my life, too."

One of the major impediments to coming up with any fee proposals, some panel members said, is a lack of information on how a gas-drilling boom would affect other state agencies, such as the state Health, Public Service, and Transportation departments.

The DEC provided the committee with a detailed, five-year estimate on necessary staffing levels in September, but the other agencies have yet to provide specific estimates.

"The resource needs of state agencies will be presented to the panel at a later time," DeSantis, the DEC spokeswoman, wrote. "Our primary focus is currently on reviewing the public comments."

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, Broome County, said revisiting the committee's schedule is understandable and could be beneficial. Lupardo is one of two lawmakers on the panel, along with Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton.

"I understand why they need to do that," she said. "Given the things that we're working on -- state resources and the financial package -- it gives us some time to react to the DEC's final product and look at the market conditions we're facing if (high-volume hydrofracking) begins."

Libous, one of the state Legislature's biggest hydrofracking supporters, said he's OK with taking extra time to allow the DEC to make sure it has quality regulations in place.

"If the experts at DEC say that we should permit it, then it's got to be done right," he said.

(For story, visit|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE.)

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