Pro-Fracking Communities May Be First Approved by New York State DEC

Posted April 26, 2012

Pro-fracking communities may be first to get approval in N.Y.
By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- Areas of New York that have been supportive of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas could be the first to get approval if the state Department of Environmental Conservation allows the technique, according to lawmakers and lobbyists.

With the DEC in the midst of a lengthy review of its permitting guidelines for hydrofracking, some believe the agency will eventually move to allow it in certain areas near the Pennsylvania border.

Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, a gas-drilling supporter, said the state may ultimately focus on regions that haven't shown opposition to hydrofracking.

"I believe they're going to look at areas of the state where there is Marcellus Shale, where there is potential for drilling in areas of the state that are going to be open to it," said Libous, the Senate deputy majority leader. "It just doesn't make sense for them to do it elsewhere, and I think there are enough areas of the state that would be open to it."

Since 2008, the state DEC has been crafting permitting rules to dull the environmental impact of high-volume hydrofracking, a process that involves the use of water, sand and chemicals injected deep underground to unlock gas from shale formations. The technique hasn't yet been permitted in New York and won't be until the agency's review is complete.

New York's portion of the vast, gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation lies beneath all or part of 30 counties, stretching from the western part of the state to the Catskills, according to the DEC. But the thickest and most lucrative part of the shale is believed by geologists to be in the southern portions of Broome, Tioga and Chemung counties.

And most of the government opposition to hydrofracking has come from outside the shale's epicenter in New York. More than 90 municipalities have issued bans or moratoriums on hydrofracking; All but one -- the city of Binghamton -- have been outside of Broome, Tioga and Chemung counties.

In December, Binghamton City Council at the urging of Mayor Matthew T. Ryan, approved a two-year ban on hydraulic fracturing -- the only official governmental ban in Broome County.

At its April 4 meeting, the Town of Union board accepted a petition from the Glen Park Homeowner's Association requesting a "ban on gas drilling using hydrofracking" in the town and establishing a 5-ton weight limit on vehicles using Western Heights Boulevard.

More recently, Residents Against Fracking in Tioga presented the Town of Owego board a petition with 1,000 signatures asking for a ban.

"We are totally against fracking," said Gerri Wiley, who submitted the RAFT petition and referred to a brochure titled "101 reasons High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Needs to be Banned in New York State."

Recently, some pro-hydrofracking landowner groups have mobilized in towns close to the Pennsylvania border, hoping to convince town boards to pass resolutions in support of gas drilling and the economic opportunity it brings.

James Finch, acting supervisor of the Town of Conklin said the town board would soon act on the resolution as a way of signaling to the DEC that it wants drilling within its borders.

"That's the only thing that's going to bring this area back," said Finch, noting that the town has been hit hard by flooding twice since 2006.

In the Town of Vestal, both pro- and anti-hydrofracking groups have lobbied board members in recent weeks, hoping to have the board take action in their favor.

"I'm getting tapped by both sides, and they're both working diligently to try and prove their case," said Supervisor John Schaffer. "We have not supported it, and we have not denied it. We will listen to everybody, and we will react when the time comes to react."

DEC already signaled that it would allow some local involvement in the permitting process. A draft version of the agency's hydrofracking review lets municipalities "raise a flag with DEC" if a permit application doesn't follow its local land and zoning laws, DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in an email.

"If high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, local governments will get advance notice of all applications and can comment on compatibility of such application with local land use laws and policies," DeSantis wrote. "DEC will consider this in its review of the permit application and can deny or condition a permit based on this information if it deems such action is appropriate based on the impacts."

DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, meanwhile, has repeatedly said the agency won't issue more permits than its staff can handle -- a number that would likely be small, given that the agency has lost more than 800 full-time positions since 2008.

Courts have so far backed local control over whether to allow hydrofracking. A pair of state Supreme Court decisions last month found that municipalities can indeed ban drilling or hydrofracking within their borders; both decisions are currently awaiting appeal.

Allowing any hydrofracking permits, however, would be sure to anger groups opposed to the technique, many of whom believe it can cause irreparable harm to the environment.

"My sense is once DEC completes their process, I think that we'll ease into this," said Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Otsego County.

"There will be a limited number of permits. Where the best opportunity is for the most return on wells and where the local community welcomes the opportunity, I think that obviously makes sense to issue permits that meet those two criteria."

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, said she believes the DEC needs to start over in its regulatory review and take human-health impacts into account before allowing any drills in the ground. Lifton and Seward have been supporters of "home rule," sponsoring separate bills that would clarify the municipal right to ban or zone drilling.

"We have to know whether this industry is ready for primetime in New York -- whether it's safe, whether it's going to hurt the water," Lifton said. "And I don't believe we're at that point."

Allowing a piecemeal approach to drilling in New York would likely receive pushback from the gas industry.

Thomas West, who represents several gas companies as an Albany-based lobbyist and attorney, said the industry would likely move slowly into New York anyway because of natural-gas prices that have been trading at decade-long lows. But he questioned the legality of the state allowing drilling in some areas and not others.

The DEC has already announced its intention to ban surface drilling within the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, a move West also questioned.

"I don't know how the state can come down and make a value judgment and say, 'We're going to allow it in limited places,'" West said. "I think DEC is sticking its neck out by carving out areas."

Staff writer Ed Christine contributed to this report.


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