The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

November 14, 2009

In new rules, DEC should ban 'fracking'


More than three years ago, I said energy production was becoming the overriding issue of the early 21st century, and that this region was smack-dab in the middle of the battleground.

And that was before drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale surfaced as perhaps the biggest bout yet between energy producers, state regulators and the people.

Back then, in early 2006, it was proposals for windmills, the NYRI power line and a wood-burning power plant in Oneonta that snared local residents in debates about alternative energy, environmental impacts and property rights.

We can be pleased that communities of people and their elected officials helped kill two of those projects. While windmills are still being proposed and erected in the region, popular sentiment has won out in stopping or at least limiting the industrial-size wind turbines in many locations.

Enter the natural-gas drillers, who had developed the technology to extract the fuel from deep in shale and had zeroed in on forecasts for increased use of gas in the future because of the growing number of restrictions being placed on petroleum-based fuels.

Before we knew it, drillers had crept into the region and found plenty of economically depressed farmers and others who were more than willing to sign leases to allow drilling on their lands. What's the big deal about a few little drilling rigs sucking some gas out of the ground, they figured, and besides, we could use the royalties.

But then a phrase surfaced _ hydraulic fracturing _ that few people had ever heard before. And, no doubt, they wish they'd never seen it.

Fortunately, the new technology called ``fracking,'' which uses millions of gallons of water per well, mixed with chemicals, to fracture the shale and release natural gas, and permits horizontal drilling, didn't catch state leaders completely off-guard.

The regulations governing natural-gas drilling were adopted in 1992, long before the ``fracking'' technique was developed. So, as thousands of drilling leases were being signed, the governor ordered the state Department of Environment Conservation to update its rules before issuing any new permits for drilling.

That delay pushed the door wide open for opposition groups to enter, with an opportunity to influence the toughness of the new regulations and perhaps go even further and prevent ``fracking'' altogether.

And the growth of the opposition to ``fracking'' makes the activist foes of the earlier NYRI power line pale in comparison, in both numbers and strategic coordination.

But, after numerous hearings, DEC came up with its draft updated regulations for gas drilling, and they call for a lot of oversight of ``fracking,'' but do not forbid it.

Hearings are still being held and the comment period has been extended to Dec. 31, but the arguments are the same: drilling is good for energy, jobs and the economy vs. we don't want our drinking water and streams polluted, and eventually consumed.

Nearly 50 grass-roots and environmental groups have called for a ban on ``fracking.'' And you can't imagine why. I mean, the draft regs would require drillers to disclose the ``frac'' chemicals they're using, and also mandates tests of water wells within 1,000 or 2,000 feet of ``fracking.''

Great. Drillers have to tell people what poisons they're using, even though it's the by-product ``fracking'' water that's most toxic. And they have to make sure nearby water wells are clean before they pollute them.

Some of the area groups urging a ban include Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society, Sustainable Otsego, Action Otsego, Advocates for Springfield, Otsego County Conservation Association, Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Concerned Citizens of Otego and Schoharie Valley Watch.

Some groups want to go even further, and have secured more than 1,500 signatures on a petition calling for a statewide ban on natural-gas drilling itself, concluding that the state is not equipped to guarantee its safety. The petition will be forwarded to the governor and the DEC commissioner.

The belief is that with the state's fiscal crisis and resulting budget cuts, the DEC will not have enough people in the field to enforce new regulations, even if the rules were stringent enough.

Maybe the final regulations will be tougher. If DEC officials are listening at all during the hearings being held across the region (but not in Otsego or Delaware counties), then they'll have to conclude that most people don't want natural-gas drillers consuming and ruining our water, wrecking our roads, dotting our landscapes and adding hydro-carbon emissions to our air.

And, indeed, the best way for the state to prevent the above assaults on our water and environment is to outlaw ``fracking.''

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Cary Brunswick is a former managing editor of The Daily Star, a freelance writer and editor, and editor of oneontatoday.com.