Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Breaking News: NY officials consider plan to begin fracking Cuomo’s approach squares with NRDC advice

New York state environmental regulators are considering a plan to begin shale gas development – and the controversial process of fracking – in certain locations within the Marcellus Shale drilling fairway on a trial basis.

A proposal to allow fracking in some parts of the state but not others was spelled out in a Jan. 11 memo to state environmental regulators from attorneys with the National Resources Defense Council. The memo urged officials to consider keeping “special places off limits” to fracking, due to risks to the water supply, while allowing it in other areas. The special places include the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, Catskill parks, the Finger Lakes regions, and “primary” aquifers.

The Marcellus drilling fairway -- the area with the greatest potential for shale gas development – extends from northern Pennsylvania into south central New York, including Tioga, Broom Counties, Delaware, and Chemung Counties. Beneath the Marcellus is the Utica Shale, which encompasses the same area, but extends much further north and west. Permits allowing for shale gas development in New York are on hold pending a review by the state Department of Environmental Conservation on the environmental impacts. The review, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), is expected to be finalized later this year

As part of that review, the NRDC memo asked regulators to consider a three-year demonstration project in several “geographically limited areas.” Depending on the outcome, the state could then decide whether to “advance further a broader HVHF (High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing) program.” The memo was signed by NRDC senior attorneys Eric Goldstein and Kate Sinding, and consultant Craig Michaels.

According to an article by Danny Hakim in this morning’s New York Times, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is considering issuing permits in specific areas after the SGEIS is finalized. Hakim reported that “Cuomo’s administration is now trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area, while also honoring the opposition expressed in some communities, and limiting the ire of environmentalists, who worry that hydrofracking could contaminate groundwater and lead to other hazards.” Hakim’s story did not specifically link Cuomo’s approach to the NRDC proposal, although Cuomo’s plan appears to square with the NRDC recommendations, and activists are disappointed with the environmental organization for putting it on the table to begin with. Robert Kennedy Jr. serves as a senior attorney for the NRDC and sits on a panel that advices the DEC on it’s approach to shale gas.

Sinding said that the comments on the SGEIS were not an endorsement of plans to move ahead with shale gas, but a product of legal due diligence in evaluating all options. “We were clear that we were neither specifically endorsing any of these alternatives nor were we presupposing that any level of development should be approved – simply that the state cannot fully evaluate fracking here without an in-depth analysis of any and all scenarios that could take place here.” Sinding added: “We regret that these comments have created concern and confusion. We stand with our partners across New York State in calling for a continued moratorium on new fracking until the environmental and health risks are fully and properly considered.”

Nevertheless, the NRDC recommendation for regulators to consider a demonstration project in the context of the state's broader review has drawn criticism from activists, who argue that if drilling is unsafe in one watershed, it’s unsafe in others. Sandra Steingraber, founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, characterizes the places where drilling would be permitted on a trial basis as “sacrifice zones.” Areas likely to see the first permits for fracking include Broome and Tioga counties, which sit in the center of the fairway, where shale gas development has been promoted as the foundation of an economic renaissance for impoverished communities.

"Partitioning our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation is a shameful idea, and we will actively oppose its implementation," Steingraber said.

The DEC suspended shale gas permitting in 2008 due to concerns over the safety of fracking, short for high volume hydraulic fracturing. The process involves injecting millions of gallons of proprietary chemical solution into the ground under high pressure to fracture bedrock and stimulate gas productions from a given well. Fracking has raised questions about the potential drain on water resources, the toxicity of the chemicals used, and the handling and disposal of waste --called flowback -- by an industry exempt from state and federal laws governing hazardous waste.

The governor’s office has been under pressure both from landowners groups and businesses pressing for shale gas development, and environmental groups opposed to it.

Steingraber, author of several books about toxic exposure relating to children, accused the NRDC of a compromise that would concede the development of shale gas in some communities to spare others. “Instead of defending these communities, which is NRDC's self-appointed charge, the organization provided to the DEC in great detail a plan that sounds a lot like the very plan that is today being floated by the Cuomo administration: partitioning the state into frack and no frack zones in a way that will, if implemented, place the Southern Tier on the far side of the shale gas curtain.”

Others welcomed signs that shale gas permitting could move forward in the Southern Tier. Jim Worden is a dairy farmer, drilling proponent and leader of the Windsor Landowners Coalition, which he helped organize to leverage bargaining power with shale gas companies seeking land leaes for gas development. Worden lives in an area of Broome County where several municipalities have passed resolutions asking the governor to begin issuing permits. “I agree, if it (fracking) is unsafe in one watershed, it is unsafe in others,” Worden said. “But this is not about safety. It’s about politics. I think it’s safe. This deal (to exclude some areas and include others) was made just to appease the people who don’t want it. Hopefully, this will get things going.”

The NRDC, with 1.3 million members and annual donations approaching $100 million, is one of the country’s most influential environmental institutions. It has international offices, but with its headquarters in New York City, it has a special stake in the shale gas controversy in New York state. NRDC Founding Director John Adams is a life-long resident of the Catskills, one of the areas where fracking would be prohibited.

The controversy involving the NRDC is emblematic of the problem large, mainstream environmental groups have had defining their positions on hydraulic fracturing. The Sierra Club once supported shale gas development as a clean alternative to coal and even accepted $26 million in donations from Chesapeake, one of the country’s largest gas drillers. After facing heavy criticism from local chapters, it changed its position. It now opposes shale gas development as environmentally unsound.


  1. Full text of statement from NRDC senior attorney Kate Sinding:

    Characterization of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s position with respect to “permitting on a trial basis” is not accurate. NRDC does not support so-called “sacrifice zones.”

    We support a continuation of the moratorium on proposed new fracking anywhere in New York State until the state has completed the legally required and appropriate analyses to determine whether, and if so how, fracking should be allowed to proceed.

    First and foremost, we advocate in support of a comprehensive, clean energy future for New York – one that is dependent on energy efficiency and renewables rather than fossil fuels.

    In our comments on the revised draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement – which ran to nearly 700 pages, including over 600 pages of technical and scientific critique – we identified, as one of a number of legal deficiencies in the state’s analysis, the failure to properly evaluate alternatives to the proposed regulatory program. This is one of the three major prongs required under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and courts have held that project proponents must evaluate “a range of reasonable alternatives.”

    In arguing that the state had failed to do so, we listed a number of examples of alternatives that we believed the courts would construe as “reasonable.” These included requiring the state to evaluate the value (if any) of demonstration projects, along with allowing towns to use local zoning to regulate fracking as they see fit, and a “delayed action” alternative that would hold off any decisions until further major studies, such as EPA’s on-going study, are completed. We were clear that we were neither specifically endorsing any of these alternatives nor were we presupposing that any level of development should be approved – simply that the state cannot fully evaluate fracking here without an in-depth analysis of any and all scenarios that could take place here.

    We regret that these comments have created concern and confusion. We stand with our partners across New York State in calling for a continued moratorium on new fracking until the environmental and health risks are fully and properly considered.

  2. Since there are countless possible alternatives to the proposed regulatory program that might have been suggested in the NRDC's comments to the DEC, I still have to wonder what on earth the NRDC was thinking in including in its comments an alternative action that would essentially allow the DEC to test fracking in one area of the state to see if it was okay to allow fracking in the rest of the state. Imagine someone at a car company suggesting that possibly defective cars should only be sold in one state to see how that works out before the cars are sold in the rest of the country. Or how about trying out a new prescription medicine only on people who make less than a certain income level? This is not how a civilized, democratic nation is supposed to work!!!!

    Furthermore, since factors such as geology, population density, depth of aquifers, sources of drinking water, etc. vary from one place to the next, a test in one area might not even apply to another. There is also the fact that a small demonstration project may not seem so bad, but when thousands of wells are drilled the cumulative effects would be devastating. And let's not forget that in any demonstration project, the gas industry would presumably be at its best behavior.

    This demonstration project is an immoral and unscientific proposal, and if we have the NRDC to thank for any part of it, then I think the NRDC has a lot of work to do to regain the public's trust. A simple "sorry, our bad" won't cut it.

  3. The Southern Tier and NY needs those rigs, jobs, and income.

    Speaking of sacrifice zones, thanks to generations of Liberal economic policies the Southern Tier of NY State has been economically depressed for a generation, indeed its' chief Industries are the myriad offices of the Public Sector. By a strange fortune deliverance is under their feet...but also underfoot to trip up good fortune are Liberals with their new pet cause. I'm sure it's nice to indulge in outrage with Daddy's Trust Fund but some people are trying to make a living.

    If you want to advocate Green, kindly cut your own electricity consumption to the 3% that's generated from Green Energy at best, get back to us on how that works. On a non-petroleum based computer. Show the rest of us first, we've suffered enough from social experiments.

    In short Kate find another cause to be outraged about. I here Syria's in fashion.

  4. oh my...hear

    the heat of composition had quite overcome me...

  5. really?? that was interesting. . . if the price of oil increase the goods that we need also increases..
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