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The Newest Gold Rush: The Frenzy for Natural Gas Threatens New York's Water

In New York, even though the drilling hasn't begun, the battle lines have been drawn.
 
 
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In an age of diminishing resources, the discovery of an untapped oil or natural gas reserve can stir messianic visions. Salvation is to be found in tar sands and what were once prohibitively expensive methods of extracting crude oil or natural gas from the earth. ‘Drill, baby, drill,' 21 st century scripture in some quarters of the United States, reflects the sort of devil may care attitude that, remarkably, in an age of scarcity still drives much of our energy policy.

Last summer, when oil was fetching $140 a barrel and the price of natural gas reached record highs hundreds of landmen descended on the Catskills and Poconos in New York and Pennsylvania. They crisscrossed the Delaware basin holding meetings with local residents in an attempt to persuade them to lease their land. They want what's underneath that land -- trillions of cubic feet of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from Ohio to New York and runs through West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There were tales of deception, of fraud, and of large sums promised. The frenzy has been described as a modern day gold rush.

In New York, even though the drilling hasn't begun, the battle lines have been drawn. Environmental organizations have been forced to play catch up; to educate the public about a drilling process that has not been widely used in this part of the country; and to argue against drilling, at a time of unparalleled economic distress and budget shortfalls, in what may be the largest natural gas reservoir in the nation. And they're also up against the oil and gas companies. "We've never seen the circus come to town before," says Bruce Ferguson, a member of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy who lives in Sullivan County.   

As the landmen made their rounds, the New York State legislature passed a bill (A10526), at the eleventh hour on the final day of the legislative session, that made it easier to issue permits for horizontal drilling by establishing uniform standards for well spacing and effectively streamlining the process. The Governor, in a press release, said that the new legislation would "lead to greater administrative efficiency, result in more effective recovery of oil and natural gas, and reduce unnecessary land disturbance." Previously, public hearings for each well and a more cumbersome permitting process would have been required for horizontal drilling, significantly slowing down the potential number of wells that could be exploited.

According to a summary of the bill, "The vast majority of proposals that are expected for oil wells and horizontal wells would not conform to current statewide spacing sizes, and would therefore require notice, public comment and possibly a hearing on an individual well basis. With hundreds of such wells likely to be proposed in the near future, the potential burden on the DEC and the industry would be substantial , with no commensurate benefit in ensuring that the policy objectives of ECL S23-0301 are met [italics added]."

The environmental community and even some legislators were caught off guard. "We in the environmental community didn't wake up until very close to the vote," says Kate Sinding a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Many had been told that the bill would not pass, that it needed work, and that there was nothing to worry about. About a month before the bill passed, State Assembly Member Aileen Gunther (who voted against the measure), in a letter to one of her constituents said that, "My understanding from Mr. Parment [the bill's sponsor] is that the bill is not in its final form and will, in all likelihood, not be voted on this session." 

 
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