DEC talks drilling to Delaware County supervisors

By Matthew J. Perry
Two members of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) appeared in Delhi on August 20 before the Delaware County Board of Supervisors to provide an overview of natural gas drilling and persuade those present that the DEC is ready to deal with a rush of speculation.
State Assemblyman Clifford Crouch, also in attendance, was active in the discussion that followed the DEC presentation, explaining positions of state lawmakers and fielding questions from supervisors who expressed both curiosity and skepticism concerning Albany’s oversight of local issues.
The county board of supervisors has yet to take any official position concerning natural gas drilling, but the comments of several members indicated both an enthusiasm for speculation in the area and frustration that drilling permits could not be approved sooner. Others were hopeful that gas extracted from the area could be sold to local communities to alleviate some pressure of soaring energy prices.
The DEC’s Jack Dahl, director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation, stated that there is precedent for energy being sold to the communities that produce it; however, he was quick to state that like every other aspect of the natural gas rush, local distribution of extracted gas is no certainty.
Dahl’s presentation and manner showed the effects of criticism that has been heaped on the DEC in recent weeks by media reports, environmental groups and private citizens. He continually averred that his agency is capable of protecting public safety while regulating drilling, especially concerning threats to aquifers.
“It’s often said [New York State] has more regulations than anyone else, and that’s true,” Dahl said, “but here I think we’ve got them in the right spot.” Concerning ‘fracking’, a method for extracting gas trapped in shale beds thousands of feet below the surface, he was firm in assuring that water sources would be protected.
“We’re not saying there’s never been an accident. What we’re saying is that fracking has not contaminated anyone’s water. We’ve seen no impact on aquifers in New York State.”
Dahl’s presentation included an extensive list of powers the DEC will exercise over gas-well permits and drilling, including site inspections, knowledge of chemicals used in fracking, bonding to insure proper capping of exhausted wells, and oversight—with potential penalties—to be exercised throughout the life of a well. “Some say we don’t have power to enforce [regulations],” Dahl said. “But yes, we do.” The details of DEC authority were written into Article 23 of the Environmental Conservation law and will remain in force through at least 2011.
Supervisors posed a wide range of questions, including concerns about the storage of wastewater, increases in truck traffic, municipalities’ ability to protect their roads, and the construction of pipeline for transporting extracted gas. Dahl’s answers at times revealed limits of DEC oversight and also imparted the staggering complexity of interaction should the shale play proceed. For instance, pipelines and their maintenance are under the watch of the Department of Public Service, not the DEC and the commissions of the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins would regulate the amount of water provided for fracking.
Other questions dealt with the logistics and bureaucracy of approving permits, and the answers appeared to create some frustration on the board. Middletown Supervisor Len Utter asked if state land—such as Catskill Park land—could be leased for gas exploration. Dahl replied that state law forbids selling leases on state land; when Andes Supervisor Marty Donnelly expressed dissatisfaction with that law, Assemblyman Crouch stated that a constitutional amendment would be required to change it. Donnelly insisted that any law could be changed should the state’s lawmakers summon the will to do so.
When asked how long it would take for any permits to be approved, Dahl was succinct. “A long time,” he said. “We’ve had permits in for six months and still no approval since we’re still accumulating data.” The data will be used to create an updated GEIS form that will be used to evaluate the methods and safety of new drilling technology. A new GEIS is scheduled to be released in 2009. Before then, Dahl stated, the DEC will be convening public hearings in every county in the Marcellus Shale region, and will post notice of the meetings on its website and in local newspapers.
Addressing the issue of delayed permits, Crouch defended Dahl’s position. “One of the biggest concerns is that we get things done the right way.”
Crouch also stated that the DEC will be challenged to complete its mandate with a small staff. Dahl replied that his bureau was “the best staffed” in the Mineral Resources Division, with nine people working in the Albany Office.
“Is that enough?” asked Colchester Supervisor Bob Homovich.
Dahl suggested that the DEC’s safety record spoke for itself. Later, when asked if he thought the number of staffers and on site inspectors should be increased, given the huge task at hand, he declined to comment.