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Raucous New York Hearing Drills Down on Proposed Shale Rules

In a day-long hearing Thursday before New York legislators that was at times slowed by audience jeers and shouting, regulators and business leaders urged the state to support expanding natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale.

The New York Assembly Standing Committee of Environmental Conservation listened to testimony from state regulators, industry groups, environmental advocates and stakeholders both for and against a draft plan by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) that would permit new drilling with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) well stimulation in parts of the state (see Shale Daily, July 5).

The hearing was at times stopped by derisive audience members who jeered and shouted rude comments at some of the industry and regulatory speakers. There also were loud whistles and clapping when speakers and legislators challenged the draft rules.

DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, who testified in the morning, took heat from the mostly Democratic legislators and the audience. However, he calmly answered questions and took criticism by referring again repeatedly to the amount of research that has gone into the rulemaking.

"Our whole approach is to prevent potential health impacts," Martens said. "We're taking a preventative approach here."

Not everyone agreed. As Martens left the hearing, a woman in the audience shouted, "God save your soul!" Her comment was swiftly rebuked by Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, who chairs the committee.

The state needs the jobs and has to support new drilling, said Heather Briccetti, CEO of The Business Council of New York State Inc.

"Over the past two and a half years, the state of New York has engaged in one of the nation's most complex and thorough reviews of one single process; the extraction of a natural resource," said Briccetti. "The Department of Environmental Conservation under the leadership of two commissioners with strong environmental records have investigated and planned for the high and low probability factors associated with natural gas drilling. It is time to move forward."

She pointed to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute, a research arm of The Business Council, which found that drilling as few as 300 natural gas wells per year in the Marcellus Shale had the potential to generate more than 37,500 jobs annually in New York. The study also detailed the job-creating potential of the gas resource, comparing the private sector growth of select counties in the Southern Tier of New York with a section of northern Pennsylvania.

The council, and some industry groups, have some concerns with the proposed requirements, she said. However, the business council "believes the Department of Environmental Conservation has gone to great lengths to create a plan that is balanced in its approach. It is a plan that protects the public and the environment while allowing for vital economic development that will produce green energy and good-paying jobs. We encourage the Department of Environmental Conservation to move this review process forward so that it can begin permitting these wells and policing New York's production operations."

One day ahead of the Albany hearing, more than 250 doctors and other health care professionals asked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call for a comprehensive study of the effects of shale gas drilling on health before allowing new operations to be approved in the state's Marcellus Shale region.

The DEC's draft analysis of fracking omits critical health issues, health care professionals said in a letter Wednesday. They said New York's Department of Health had declined to conduct a requested assessment because state officials said further studies wouldn't provide significant new information not already reviewed.

In response, the health care professionals said there is growing evidence from industrial gas development in other states that indicates there is a poor health outcome for people living near gas wells being drilled, as well as near compressor stations and waste pits. The letter was forwarded to the state's health department and the DEC.

"Because New York has developed the most rigorous requirements in the nation to protect the public health and the environment, a comparison of health impacts in other states is inappropriate," DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said. The DEC's draft "thoroughly reviews the causes of potential health impacts in other states and the proposed requirements are designed to prevent them."

According to DeSantis, DEC analyzed additional truck emissions and found that they would have a minimal effect on air quality. "Even so, DEC will assess and monitor air quality impacts near drilling operations and regionally."

Under the draft rules, drilling would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, on state land and within primary aquifers.

Even if the state turns down the request for further studies, the federal government has a proposed rulemaking under way that would compel shale operators to reduce some of the toxins released near drill sites.

In late July the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a list of proposed standards to reduce air pollution from oil and natural gas drilling operations, with particular attention paid to shale development (see Shale Daily, Aug. 1; July 29). The proposed rules were issued in response to a court order following lawsuits from environmental groups.

Final action by EPA is expected by Feb. 28 following a series of public hearings in Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. If enacted as proposed, oil and gas operators would be required to cut volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from several types of processes and equipment used, including a 95% reduction in VOCs emitted when new or modified fracked wells are completed.

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