Volume 79, Number 23 | November 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Start of a sea change in the water-drilling debate 

By Albert Amateau 

The state Department of Environmental Conservation last week responded to demands by elected officials and environmental advocates for more time to comment on the proposal to allow drilling for natural gas Upstate — including in the New York City watershed.

Opponents who fear that hydraulic fracturing drilling in the Catskill-Delaware watershed would threaten 90 percent of New York City’s drinking water will have until Dec. 31 to submit their comments — a one-month extension of the original Nov. 30 deadline.
There was even better news for water-purity advocates. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a leading driller of new natural gas wells and the only holder of drilling leases in the city watershed, confirmed on Oct. 28 that it would not drill in the six counties of the Catskill-Delaware watershed.

The state has proposed potential rules for hydro-fracture drilling in the 27 Southern Tier counties, including the six in the city watershed, where the gas-bearing Marcellus Shale formation lies thousands of feet below the surface. But the city Department of Environmental Protection and elected officials have said the risks to the watershed far outweigh the acknowledged economic gain from potential natural gas resources.

Aubrey K. McClendon, chief executive officer of Chesapeake, said in a statement, “It has become increasingly clear to us over the past few months that the concern for drilling in the watershed has become a needless distraction from the larger issue of how we can safely and effectively develop natural gas reserves that underlie various counties in the Southern Tier of New York State and create high-quality green jobs… .”

The assurance, however, did not completely reassure Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who last month organized a “Kill the Drill” campaign to convince D.E.C. to issue an outright ban on watershed drilling.

“Chesapeake’s leases in the watershed will expire after five years, and even before then there is no guarantee that Mr. McClendon will remain the head of the company,” Stringer said. The borough president called on Chesapeake to sell its leases in the watershed to New York City for $1. “That way, the good words we’ve heard from the company will not be undercut by an unforeseen corporate deal a year or two from now once this controversy has passed.”

Stringer however, said the Chesapeake announcement validates the call for a ban on watershed drilling from elected officials, concerned citizens, environmental groups and editorial pages.

“The state environmental agency now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of lagging behind the industry it regulates in protecting New York City drinking water,” he said. “The Department of Environmental Conservation must correct a mistake by immediately announcing a permanent and complete ban on drilling in the watershed.”

On Sept. 30, D.E.C. issued an 809-page supplemental draft generic environmental impact statement on “hydrofracking” in the Marcellus Shale formation, setting standards of well spacing and reporting on the contents of the chemicals that are used in the huge volumes of water used in the process.

Until recently, gas companies said that the chemicals they used were industrial secrets and declined to report them in detail. The Chesapeake statement, however, said it supports the D.E.C. decision to have all hydraulic-fracturing drillers register their products and reveal the chemicals used in them.

James Simpson, staff attorney with Riverkeeper — an environmental watchdog organization — also called on the state to permanently ban drilling in the New York City watershed, and to mandate the most stringent environmental safeguards for any and all drilling throughout the state.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said in a prepared statement she was pleased D.E.C. extended the public comment period on natural gas drilling until the end of the year.

“While this [drilling] proposal holds tremendous economic opportunity for New York, our quest for new sources of energy and growth cannot come at the expense of clean air and safe drinking water for New Yorkers,” Gillibrand said.

While the record will be open in the D.E.C. hearings on drilling until Dec. 31, the only public hearing in the five boroughs is Tues., Nov. 10, at 7 p.m at Stuyvesant High School on Chambers St. A hearing will be held in Binghamton Nov. 12 and one in Corning Nov. 18.

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