Thursday, January 12, 2012

NY’s drilling ban sprang from seeds sown by Tier residents

It’s easy to associate the organized movements that characterize the shale gas impasse in New York --- now heading into its fifth year --- as forces responsible for that state's drilling moratorium. The most recent chapter of this saga ended Wednesday as the public comment period for New York’s shale gas policy drew to a close. (The New York DEC received more than 18,000 comments noting the deficiency of the SGIES  -- the document that will guide permitting guidelines for high volume hydraulic fracturing.) 

While groups like the Sierra Club, EarthJustice, and Shaleshock continue to leave indelible marks on the discussion, it’s important to keep in mind the origins of the controversy, which had very little to do with institutional environmental causes.

Flash back to the spring of 2008. A group of farmers in the Deposit, New York area had just signed a $90 million Marcellus shale leasing deal, driving home the reality of the natural gas rush and its ramifications. Formalized resistance regarding the fracking issue was yet to begin. Josh Fox had not yet filmed Gasland. There were no hints of latent problems affecting Norma Fiorentino’s water well, which exploded in 2009 and signaled the beginning of the now famous case study of methane migration in Dimock Pennsylvania.  Yet in the summer of 2008, the gas rush overtaking the region – made real by the Deposit Deal – raised practical questions in the minds of town planners, residents, and emergency responders regarding traffic, pipelines, public safety, and environmental controls. In a series of what would become pivotal town hall meetings, members of the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources were assuring residents that fracking had been done with “no problems” for decades, and that Marcellus Development would be no different. I covered those meetings as a reporter for the Press & Sun Bulletin, and two of them stand out:

On July 16, at the Chenango Town Hall, Linda Collart, a staff member of the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division, ran through a PowerPoint presentation of how Marcellus development would proceed, using information and photographs from conventional plays in upstate New York. She was challenged by a skeptical audience, which included more than 100 residents and local and state officials. People began firing questions at Collart before her presentation ended. How were regulators preparing for an influx of drilling that would exceed any historical comparison? Collart responded with words that characterized the agency’s attitude at the time about preparations needed for shale gas exploration: “We have been doing fine so far. . . . No problems.” Members of the audience pressed on: How could local emergency responders prepare for a spill, fire, or explosion when the industry did not fully disclose the complete chemical content and concentrations of fracking fluids? “We don’t anticipate any significant emergencies,” Collart said. “These things are rare.”

Another meeting was held the next day in Greene, New York, a community about 20 miles north of the Town of Chenango. This time, more than 500 residents crowded the auditorium and pressed Collart and other DEC representatives on the same issues. This meeting was attended not only by the rank and file from the agency’s Mineral Resources Division, but by Judith Enck, the governor’s top environmental advisor and Stuart Gruskin, the agency’s deputy commissioner.  As staffers from the minerals division were pressed by questions from the crowd, reflecting skepticism boarding on hostility, Enck responded with words that foreshadowed a new direction the DEC would soon take. She told the crowd this: “The DEC is going back and doing its homework. I’m sure you will hold our feet to the fire and make sure it gets done.”

It was residents, not activists, who had initially gotten the DEC's attention. Six days after the Greene meeting, Governor David Paterson issued the moratorium and ordered the DEC to begin the SGEIS review to account for the unanswered shale gas questions. Since then, the document has become an effective and established tool for activists to challenge the DEC’s assessment that there is “no problem” with shale gas drilling.  Of course, the opposition is now well organized locally, regionally and nationally. For better or for worse, things may have turned out much differently in New York if the residents of the Southern Tier did not, as Enck put it, hold the feet of agency officials to the fire of public review of this monumental issue.

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