Environmental Committee Holds Hearing on Proposal to Permit New Gas Drilling

October 15, 2009

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh joined several of his colleagues on the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, including Committee Chair Bob Sweeney, for a public hearing in Albany on October 15, 2009 to discuss the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement Governing Natural Gas Drilling (SGEIS), which was released by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on September 30th.

The SGEIS discusses the potential environmental impact of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a sedimentary rock formation that extends from southern New York across parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio. It is believed that the Marcellus Shale contains a significant amount of natural gas, which may be accessible via a new method of horizontal drilling and a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking.” If approved, the SGEIS would permit the drilling across much of New York State.

Kavanagh and members of the Committee listened intently to nearly eight hours of testimony at the hearing. Witnesses included DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, New York City Department of Environmental Protection Acting Commissioner Steven Lawitts, John Williams of the United States Geological Survey, Brad Gill of the Independent Oil and Gas Association, Doctor Susan J. Riha of the New York State Water Resources Institute, Thomas W. Beauduy of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Doug Morris of the American Petroleum Institute, Richard Schrader of the Natural Resources Defense Council, David Gahl of Environmental Advocates of New York, Roger Downs of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, William Cooke of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper, Michael Lebron of New Yorkers for Sustainable Energy Solutions Statewide, Buck Moorhead of NYH2O, and several other experts and activists from the environmental and natural gas fields and the business community.

The possibility of discovering large amounts of natural gas presents a potential economic boon for New Yorkers in the Marcellus Shale area, but there are substantial environmental, economic, quality of life and public health concerns as well. Some issues raised at the hearing included the massive amount of water necessary for the drilling process and possible contamination of groundwater sources as a result of the toxic chemicals employed. The potential for spills of the toxic chemicals required for the drilling process is a serious concern. Significant too is the probable impact on the local environment and infrastructure due to the influx of traffic and industrial drilling equipment as well as the potential risk to individual wells, aquifers, air quality, farms, and wildlife both from the drilling and the procedures used to store the wastewater created.

Questions were also raised about the failure of natural gas companies to release the precise chemical composition of the compounds known as fracking fluids. Professor Anthony Hay, Director of Cornell University’s Institute for Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, referred in his testimony to compounds in the wastewater that are highly carcinogenic, namely benzene and 4-nitroquinoline-N-oxide, the latter of which is not typically listed by companies but which is referenced in the SGEIS at highly toxic levels. The chemicals utilized could seriously affect the health and quality of life of residents both local to drilling areas and those who benefit from a protected watershed.

Of particular distress to numerous activists was the possibility that natural gas drilling may lead to contamination of the New York City watershed, which provides approximately 1.2 billion gallons of drinking water to 9 billion residents in New York City and others in surrounding areas every day. Some expressed concern that even relatively safe drilling in the watershed would potentially terminate the exemption that New York City currently receives from the Environmental Protection Agency from the requirement to filter its drinking water that applies to water systems in most large cities. This in itself would economically hurt the State beyond the other potential damage that the watershed could incur; developing a filtration system might cost as much as $10 billion according to testimony received at the hearing.

Based on all the testimony and ongoing research and discussions, Kavanagh will continue to work with his legislative colleagues, DEC, and other interested parties and activists to ensure New Yorkers’ water supply will remain free from harmful toxins and contaminants, and that any potential natural gas drilling will be done with the lowest possible impact on the environment throughout the region.

If you have any questions or comments about this issue, or if you would like to get involved, please contact Cameron Peterson or Will Colegrove at 212-979-9696.