Watershed Update: State Releases Drilling Guidelines. Environmental Groups Skeptical; Say Watershed Still at Risk

New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation has issued its long awaited supplemental generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS) on proposed drilling for natural gas in New York City's Catskill-Delaware Watershed, which sits within the Marcellus Shale, a giant formation stretching all the way to West Virginia.

A new technology, hydraulic fracturing, makes drilling possible in the Shale. Millions of gallons of fresh water along with sand and chemicals, some toxic, are injected under high pressure miles down the drilling hole to fracture deep underground formations and prop them open in order to release oil and gas trapped within. The technology has been promoted in articles such as a recent New York Times piece (“New Way To Tap Gas May Expand Global Supplies”) as nothing less than the solution to the world's energy and global warming crises.

In that article, no mention was made of the technique's having been implicated in accidents and contamination of water supplies in Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Residents and environmental groups, many formed around this very issue, have raised alarms about the threat posed to the City's famed water supply and have demanded that no drilling take place in the watershed. Some have called for a moratorium on drilling in all of New York State. Also at risk is the State's EPA exemption from filtering required for surface water supplies that the City enjoys. If the water becomes contaminated and loses it's exemption, a filtration plant would cost the City—not the drillers—an estimated $4billion, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. Some estimates are as high as $6 billion.

The SGEIS lays out the proposed regulations for drilling in the watershed. Those regulations, as reported in The River Reporter of Narrowsburg, NY, include disclosure of the fracturing fluids used, testing of wells within 1,000 feet of drilling sites, or if no wells are within 1,000, extending the testing area to 2,000 feet, following established protocols for water withdrawals, preparing plans for greenhouse gas emissions, visual, noise, and traffic impacts, and restrictions on storage of wastewater in open pits.

The drilling industry has readily accepted the guidelines, but environmental groups are not satisfied. Riverkeeper's comments are typical; it has promised to carefully go over the guidelines but has stated it is frankly skeptical that any drilling can safely be conducted in the watershed.

The DEC has a public comment period in effect until November 30th, and will hold four public hearings, with one here in New York City on Tuesday, November 10, 7PM at the Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, 345 Chambers Street in Manhattan. Several environmental groups, including Environmental Advocates of New York and Riverkeeper are asking for it to be extended to 90 or even 120 days.

Also available for comment is the overall New York State Energy Plan into the forseeable future. The deadline for those comments is October 19th.