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.