Friday, January 13, 2012

EPA’s Enck remains central figure in NY’s shale gas future

As previously reported in this blog, Judith Enck was Governor David Paterson’s top environmental advisor in 2008 when the New York DEC did an about face on its stance regarding the safety of hydraulic fracturing. Now Enck heads EPA’s Region II, a position from which she continues to influence New York’s landmark environmental debate, most recently with comments from her staff on the revised SGEIS. 

Enck began her career with NYPIRG, the progressive environmental advocacy group, before becoming an advisor for New York governors Spitzer and Paterson. Under Paterson, she was central to policy-making that produced the SGEIS and the state’s adjunct environmental review, which have since become critical tools for activists to stall shale gas development in New York.  Paterson’s announcement of the review came days after Enck attended a town hall meeting in Greene, NY and heard an audience of 500 residents grill staff of the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources about unanswered questions related to shale gas. Prior to that meeting, the DEC’s staff had told the public that they anticipated no problems with high volume hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas and they were ready to issue permits. 

As head of EPA’s Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey, Enck is sending similar signals about the need to thoroughly regulate shale gas development. While the EPA lacks jurisdiction to oversee hydraulic fracturing, the federal agency is seizing an opportunity to influence state policy makers through the SGEIS. Enck is well versed in the dynamics of the executive offices in Albany, and not surprisingly she has broad professional and social networks there, which include DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, formally head of the Open Space Institute, a land conservation agency.

As recently reported by Jon Campbell of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, the EPA’s comments are nothing less than a line-by-line critique of the 1,500-page SGEIS with plenty of suggestions for improvements, including strengthening a fracking ban within major water supplies, taking a closer look at naturally occurring radioactive material found in gas-drilling waste, and more precisely defining terms and language throughout the report. These EPA’s comments – submitted hours before the deadline – join an avalanche of critiques from more than 18,000 parties that essentially will send DEC staffers back to the drawing board as they begin their third draft of the document, which interestingly attracts more rather than less criticism with every revision.

In a cover letter accompanying the EPA critique, Enck called for “safeguards to avoid impacts to ground water and surface water quality in ways that may damage human health and the environment.” This is the same message she delivered to me when I was a reporter covering the Greene meeting in 2008.  Enck also notes: “New York has demonstrated leadership with this issue and will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country.“ It’s clear from Enck’s public positioning – from the time of the Greene meeting -- that she wants to see New York state become the gold standard for shale gas regulation, in contrast to other states, including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, that have encouraged the shale gas rush while regulating it on a trial and error basis.

Moreover, the EPA’s critique of the New York's shale gas policy development signals a move away from the federal agency’s hands-off approach to hydraulic fracturing under the Bush Administration; and it’s a move represented by factors that go well beyond Enck’s leadership in Region II. The EPA is conducting a nationwide review of the safety of hydraulic fracturing as it revisits a loophole, under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, that exempts the fracking industry from federal oversight. That review has brought EPA investigators to Dimock, Pennsylvania (minutes across the New York state border) which has become a national stage for the controversy over shale gas development’s impact on water supplies.  

In this context, the EPA critique on New York’s SGEIS, in reality, tells us as much or more about the federal agency’s growing interest in shale gas regulation as it does about the technical merits of New York state DEC’s developing policy. 

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