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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

DEC Chief Defends Plan For Fracking

- DEC Chief Defends Plan For Fracking

Wednesday, July 13, 2011
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
by David Robinson

State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens says he doesn't see a double standard in new natural gas drilling recommendations that would bar a controversial practice in parts of the state and not others.

His department's recommendations for regulating the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing would bar the practice in the Syracuse and New York City watersheds, but would open about 85 percent of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale region to drillers.

Martin, in a meeting Tuesday with reporters and editors of The Buffalo News, said the New York City and Syracuse watersheds were singled out as deserving special protection because they are the only supplies of unfiltered drinking water in the state.

A surge in natural gas drilling, along with the increased truck traffic that comes with it, potentially could jeopardize the ability to tap those watersheds as drinking water supplies that do not require filtering.

If that happened, the municipalities that rely on those watersheds for drinking water could be forced to build costly water treatment plants that, in the case of New York City, could carry a tab as high as $9 billion, Martens said.

Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation's recommendations protect water supplies elsewhere in the state by barring drilling within 500 feet of the boundary of primary aquifers or private wells. Drilling also would be prohibited within 2,000 feet of a public drinking water supply.

"Our regulations are stricter than any other state," Martens said.

"We have very ambitious setbacks from all water supplies," he said. "I would say we've taken a cautionary and prudent approach."

But State Sen. Daniel Carlucci, DClarkstown, questioned why what's good for a large swath of upstate New

York is not allowed in the two watershed areas.

"It does, however, raise a troubling paradox," Carlucci wrote this week in a letter to the DEC. "If the threat of potential pollution is too great to subject the New York City and Syracuse watersheds to, why would it then be acceptable to subject water sources in the rest of the state to the same potential contamination?"

The recommendations also would ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing on state-owned land, including parks, forests and wildlife-management areas, and in flood plains.

Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that the DEC recommendations "inexplicably" would allow individual landowners to waive the 500-foot buffer around private drinking water wells. "They should not put landowners in a position of balancing potential economic gain against risking their health and safety," she said.

Drilling advocates contend the prolific horizontal wells could provide a major economic boost to upstate New York, creating thousands of jobs and helping to hold down natural gas prices by bolstering supplies.

More than 3,000 horizontal wells have been drilled and hydraulically fractured in the Marcellus Shale area of Pennsylvania, but none in New York because of a moratorium imposed by the state while the DEC developed new rules.

Horizontal wells go straight down for about a mile, then gradually turn at almost a 90- degree angle and continue for a half mile to nearly a mile horizontally, through the Marcellus Shale.

Drillers then inject millions of gallons of water, chemically treated to kill bacteria and prevent scale buildup up on pipes, into the well at high pressure to produce tiny cracks in the rock to free the gas. They also use small explosive charges.

The technique allows drillers to tap into much larger supplies of gas from a single drill site, which can have as many as six wells extending out in different directions. A single well can cost more than $4 million, but successful wells can produce gas at very high rates.

Opponents contend that the process, which uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand, could contaminate drinking water supplies and cause other environmental damage through increased truck traffic and the construction of roads and pipelines through rural areas.

Any drilling boom, however, probably would miss most of Western New York, with the likely exception of the easternmost portion of Allegany County. Unlike the layer across much of Central New York, geologists said the Marcellus Shale throughout most of the western part of the state is too thin and shallow to hold vast quantities of natural gas. Instead, most of the drilling is expected to focus on the portions of the Southern Tier from Steuben County eastward to Delaware County.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

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