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Is New York's Budget Deficit Leading it to Adopt Natural Gas Drilling Practices That Threaten Drinking Water?

The state's environmental regulations are supposed to ensure that drilling in the Marcellus Shale proceeds smoothly; they don't even come close.
 
 
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Is New York hoping to quell its mounting deficit by approving a risky environmental practice that may cost the state its revered drinking water? That’s what many residents and environmental agencies fear.

On Dec. 31, New Yorkers had their last chance to comment publicly on the state’s tentative environmental template for natural gas drilling. The 804-page document, which is known formally as the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS), was released by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in late September. It lays out a series of guidelines for gas companies, including some specifics on the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

Three months ago, policymakers in Albany were hoping that the dSGEIS would pave the way for wide-scale drilling in New York’s share of the Marcellus Shale. (The Marcellus is an enormous rock formation that’s believed to contain around 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas; it runs under sections of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania Tennessee and Virginia.) The Empire State, which is saddled with a $3.2 billion deficit and an 8.7 percent unemployment rate, stands to benefit significantly from the influx of jobs and tax revenue that gas exploration could generate.

But as more public attention was focused on the dSGEIS, numerous flaws became glaringly evident -- flaws that hold significant implications for New York’s economic and environmental future.

For starters, portions of the dSGEIS violate an executive order handed down by Governor David Paterson last April. According to Paterson’s order, "No state agency shall recommend, propose, publish or submit any legislation or regulation containing a mandate without an accounting of the impact of such mandate on local governments…." Such a ban on “unfunded mandates” essentially means that if the state wants to assign specific tasks to local governments, it must first make necessary budgetary adjustments at the state level; it can’t simply pass the buck down.

But in Chapter 7 of its impact statement, the DEC proposes several drilling-related tasks without any explanation of how New York will help pay for them. An example: If an accident occurs on a drill rig after it has been operating for more than a year, the responsibility falls on local health departments to conduct an investigation. Though such agencies are normally in charge of incidents involving water contamination, they don’t have the wherewithal to test for the cocktail of chemicals and naturally occurring radioactive materials hydraulic fracturing produces.

Nor do they have the staff in many areas. Broome County, a portion of Central New York that could see between 2,000 and 4,000 wells constructed in the near future, has only two groundwater management specialists, according to Anthony Masterangelo, a representative from the county health department.

Insufficient staffing is not just limited to local governments, either. According to a recent study, New York’s entire DEC had only 19 people enforcing drilling regulations for 13,684 wells in 2008. If the state were to approve new drilling in the Marcellus, thousands of wells would be constructed without any plan for increasing state personnel accordingly.

“Knowing the state’s budget situation -- it’s promising to be worse this next fiscal year -- the state just doesn’t have the resources to hire additional staff without major negative consequences for other agencies," Wayne Bayer, a DEC environmental program specialist, told me. “Since the agency was created, we’ve normally had new statutory, regulatory responsibilities added every year, both federally and state. We’ve never had any taken away. And we’ve never been given a commensurate increase in staff for the additional responsibilities."

Bayer, the head of a DEC union that represents more than 2,000 employees, recently issued a letter to Governor Paterson urging him to postpone drilling operations for another year. "Although the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation is a valuable resource, public safety and the protection of all of our natural/environmental resources demand that NYSDEC take the time to do a complete evaluation and adequate planning before allowing its use," it states.