By Tom Grace

Cooperstown News Bureau

Otsego County's Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns Committee plans a series of debates on gas drilling, beginning March 25.

``We want to hear from both sides, and we want to keep the presentations as factual as possible,'' committee Chairman Rep. Stephen Fournier, R-Milford, said Wednesday.

Members of pro-drilling land-owners' groups and environmental organizations will choose spokesmen to participate in each debate, he said. Tentative rules call for each debater to make a 20-minute argument, then there will be time for rebuttal, Fournier said.

The four committee members "" Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts; Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Springfield; Rep. Richard Murphy, D-Oneonta; and Fournier "" will help moderate the debates, Fournier said.

In recent months, some county residents have lobbied the Otsego County Board of Representatives to form a task force to study the likely effects of widespread drilling. The debates may help committee members decide whether a task force is warranted, he said.

``We want the speakers to stay on topic and not get into emotional pleas,'' he said.

The topic for the first debate will be hydrofracturing, the technique of injecting wells with mixtures of water, sand and chemicals to explode rock underground and release gas.

Gas drillers, coalition members and their supporters have argued that the technique is safe because it is done deep in the ground, far beneath aquifers. Environmentalists have said there are risks associated with hydrofracked wells, noting the gas drilling industry was granted exemptions from federal drinking water and clean air acts about five years ago.

Gas drilling has become a hot topic in northern Pennsylvania and central New York in recent years as experts have said the area is awash in natural gas, trapped thousands of feet below ground.

Although geologists have known for years that gas might be there, the advent of horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing has made gas drilling in this area economically feasible.

The gas-drilling issue first came to the county board's attention in 2006, when Burton Wienke Jr., a consultant with the Elexco Group, tried to persuade representatives to lease about 1,500 acres of county land for drilling.

Elexco's offer to the county taxpayers, which the board declined in May 2007, was $2 per acre per year. Offers made since then to private landowners by gas drillers' representatives have been far higher.

The Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns Committee meeting will begin at 9:15 a.m. March 25 and will be held at the Meadows Office Complex in Middlefield. The meeting will be open to the public.

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