New York’s top environmental regulator on Thursday spent nearly three hours defending his agency’s proposed rules to allow expanded natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) before a panel of skeptical state legislators and a raucous audience.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joseph Martens said he is confident that his agency’s approach to imposing stringent regulations to allow expanded gas drilling using fracking would be the strongest in the country once the rules are finalized (see NGI, July 4). The hearing was hosted by the 12-member New York Assembly Standing Committee of Environmental Conservation.

The rules, Martens told the Assembly members, would “ensure that gas drilling is undertaken in a manner that protects public health and the environment.”

Many of the legislators appeared skeptical, questioning Martens at times in critical tones for the apparent lack of substance in the DEC’s draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement. The audience often joined in by jeering and hissing. Chairman Robert Sweeney (D-Suffock County) twice had to chastise the crowd to settle down.

“People are very skeptical this industry can be adequately regulated,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca). “It is almost guaranteed there will be health impacts.” The crowd applauded and cheered when she said fracking should be banned until neighboring Pennsylvania, which has allowed gas drilling and has suffered some drilling accidents, demonstrates that it has implemented effective rules.

“The natural gas has been there for arguably thousands of years and it will be there if we don’t drill it for years to come,” said Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye, Westchester County. “Why is there such an intense urgency to do this now when we could measure twice and cut once?” he asked, as an audience member responded, “Greed and money!”

Martens said regulators aren’t moving too quickly.

“Over three years the department has been looking at every facet of the [gas] industry, how the process works, how it needs to be done properly,” he said. “We looked at the problems in other states and we’ve done our very best to address each and every one of those problems to prevent them from occurring here.”

Martens said, “Our whole approach is to prevent potential health impacts…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!”

Heather Briccetti, CEO of The Business Council of New York State Inc. also testified, as did other industry supporters and many opposed to drilling. The state needs the jobs and has to support new drilling, Briccetti said.

“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, do have concerns with some 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. 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 NGI, Aug. 1). The proposed rules were issued in response to a court order following lawsuits from environmental groups.

©Copyright 2011Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news reportmay not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in anyform, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.