A four-year-old hydraulic fracturing study by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has broken a state record: It has drawn more public reaction than any other issue in the agency's history.
Between September 2011 and January 2012, the DEC received more than 66,000 comments on the agency's revised draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS). That's in addition to the 13,000 comments it received in response to an earlier draft.
At stake is how—or if—New York will allow natural gas companies to use a combination of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing known as fracking to develop the state's Marcellus Shale formation. The technology allows drilling companies to tap tightly bound gas deposits once considered too expensive to reach by pumping thousands, or sometimes millions, of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground to stimulate the flow of natural gas. Fracking has become controversial due to fears of water and air contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been studying whether drinking water in Pennsylvania was polluted by fracking.
New York's efforts to develop fracking regulations have attracted national attention because it is one of two states to place a hold on permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling while it investigates the industry's impacts. A recent InsideClimate News story examined how one group of New York landowners hopes to circumvent the hold by fracking wells with liquid petroleum gas, which is primarily propane, rather than water. (Paragraph includes correction, 04/25/2012).
Maryland, the only other state to instate a delay in the high-volume, horizontal drilling process, recently launched its own study of the environmental and public health impacts of fracking. (Paragraph includes correction, 04/25/2012).
New York's DEC released the original draft SGEIS in September 2009 and published the revised draft SGEIS in September 2011. The final SGEIS and regulations are expected to be released together by the end of the year.
DEC spokeswoman Lisa King said the agency is reviewing all the comments it received during the last public comment period, which closed in January.
"Approximately 55 people from several divisions at DEC are involved with reviewing and preparing responses to comments. These include our minerals, water, air and lands & forests divisions," King told InsideClimate News in an email. "In addition, we are obtaining assistance from an environmental consulting firm."
King said the agency will consider the comments as it prepares a final SGEIS that will identify "all of the potential impacts to the environment associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing and propos[e] mitigation measures to address those impacts."
According to New York environmental law, the DEC will have at least 10 days after the SGEIS and regulations are released to prepare a document that determines whether high-volume fracking will be allowed within the state. (Paragraph includes correction, 04/25/2012).
"If high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, the regulations would provide a regulatory framework to impose most of the mitigation measures in the SGEIS," King told InsideClimate News. "If high-volume hydraulic fracturing does not move forward...[those] regulations would not be necessary."
Some environmentalists believe the DEC will continue the permitting delay in New York. Others expect the DEC to approve high-volume fracking and are counting on the new regulations to provide effective protections. (Paragraph includes correction, 04/25/2012).
The DEC hasn't released the latest round of comments, but some industry and environmental groups have made their comments public. Here's a snapshot of what they've said:
Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an industry group
The proposed regulations and certain mitigation measures "are based upon unrealistic, worst-case scenarios that impose costly and time-consuming requirements...Without change, these proposals will render shale gas in New York non-competitive."
"...it does not appear that any consideration has been given to the timely processing of permit applications in New York State in order to lessen regulatory burdens, reduce staffing needs and promote natural gas development. The many sequential agency and intra-departmental reviews and coordination with river basin authorities...are too cumbersome and will not work in practice."
The proposed measures "require each operator to perform a 'green' frac analysis for each well permit application even though the industry has made great strides in greening frac fluid additives. This will lead to significant cost and delay, and there are no standards identified for review of the analysis."
Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company
"Given the long-term projections of low natural gas prices, as well as the existence of more profitable plays and more reasonable regulatory environments [elsewhere]...it is difficult to foresee industry making the significant investments necessary to develop the shale gas resources in New York if the excess costs and delays in this draft are not addressed."
On waste transport: "Regular testing of wastewater and materials from the drilling process should be performed to determine if they pose a threat to human health and the environment so that such wastewater and materials may be disposed of properly. Well operators should have to pay for this testing and [DEC] staff should review the results."
New York Water Rangers, a coalition of citizen and environmental groups including Catskill Mountainkeeper, Earthworks and the Natural Resources Defense Council
"New Yorkers are concerned about the potential costs of fracking, including costs to already overburdened local governments, but...The socioeconomic impact analysis provided to the DEC omits critical information about fracking's fiscal impact on communities in terms of infrastructure, schools, and other costs."
Earthworks, a nonprofit that advocates for responsible oil and gas drilling
Earthworks urged the DEC to release the final regulations after the final SGEIS: "The final SGEIS will presumably reflect public comments and additional information not in the current draft—resulting in new analyses of impacts and proposed mitigation measures that should, in turn, be used to develop regulations. With this in mind, DEC should separate out and extend the public comment period for the regulations before they are finalized."
On the need for a better health impact study: the SGEIS "contains extensive information on impacts from [fracking] and industrial gas development on water resources...air quality...and noise...However, the links between these aspects and human (as well as animal) health is not explicitly considered, including with regard to their long-term implications for New York's residents, health care costs, and economic productivity."
On the lack of a cumulative impacts analysis: factors such as "air and water quality; land degradation; waste generation, treatment, and disposal; and the interrelationship with critical economic sectors such as farming and tourism...[these] problems...can intensify over time. This 'additive effect' can only be assessed through a cumulative impacts analysis, which could in turn inform limitations or prohibitions on gas development in particular areas."
American Petroleum Institute, an industry group. API spokesman Reid Porter directed InsideClimate News to an API statement from a Nov. 2011 hearing on the revised draft SGEIS.
"While the potential environmental impacts of natural gas drilling in New York are speculative at best, we know for sure that these prohibitions and setbacks will make certain areas uneconomic, result in greater surface footprint because additional wells will need to be drilled for the same spacing unit, result in less gas being produced because of stranded acreage, and significantly reduce or eliminate royalties to landowners."
InsideClimate News also asked the Associated General Contractors of New York State and the New York Petroleum Council (the New York chapter of API) to share their comments, but they didn't respond in time for publication.
Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of the article referred to New York's hold on permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing as a ban on fracking. This article has been changed to show that New York's hold on fracking applies to high-volume hydraulic fracturing, not all types of fracturing.