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Debate Over Stricter Chemical 'Fracking' Regulations

Wed, 10/28/2009 - 6:19am

MARY ESCH Associated Press Writer — October 28, 2009

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Strict new gas-drilling regulations are still not sufficient to protect New York City's water supply from the risk of contamination, according to politicians and environmental advocates seeking a ban on drilling in the city's upstate watershed.

Drilling opponents, energy companies, gas leaseholders and others with an interest in natural gas drilling in southern New York will get to state their position Wednesday evening in the first of four public hearings on new regulations proposed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The agency released the proposed regulations on Sept. 30 and set a 60-day public comment period.

The new rules were drafted as a supplement to existing state regulations on oil and gas exploration, in response to concerns about gas extraction from deep shale formations using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. In that process, millions of gallons of water combined with chemicals are injected after a well is drilled, fracturing the shale to release the gas.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is widely used in the Marcellus Shale formation, a layer of rock about 6,000 feet below ground that extends from southern New York, across Pennsylvania, into eastern Ohio and parts of West Virginia.

Environmentalists and residents worry about accidents that could result in contamination of water supplies by chemicals added to the fracking water or brought up from the shale thousands of feet underground. The Marcellus Shale region includes the watershed providing drinking water for 8 million New York City residents.

Although hydraulic fracturing is generally safe, the technique has been blamed for a number of water pollution cases around the country.

Last month, Pennsylvania regulators ordered Cabot Oil and Gas to temporarily stop using the fracking technique following chemical spills. Earlier this year, regulators blamed Cabot's drilling operations for methane contamination of several residential wells. In Colorado and Wyoming, people living near gas wells have complained about bad-tasting well water, well blowouts when fracturing is going on, and health problems they believe are caused by methane or chemicals from gas production.

Officials estimate Marcellus Shale has the potential to yield as much as 489 trillion cubic feet of gas — enough to supply all U.S. needs for nearly two decades.

The state's report spelling out the regulations describes the substantial economic benefits of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale as well as the potential adverse effects. It outlines requirements designed to protect water resources, air quality, wetlands, roads, and community character, among other things.

Permits to drill in the Marcellus region of New York have been held up for about 18 months while the generic impact statement, which will substitute for individual environmental impact statements, was produced.

K&L Gates, a law firm representing Halliburton and other energy companies, calls the proposed regulations "the most stringent requirements on horizontal drilling and high-volume fracturing activities of any state."

The proposed regulations could be modified, depending on the comments received.

A spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the administration is still evaluating the proposed regulations and formulating a public comment. "The mayor has said it's something we're looking at very closely, and if we determine there's any risk to the water supply we would fight drilling in the watershed," spokesman Marc Lavorgna said Tuesday.

"Banning drilling in the watershed would exclude less than 6 percent of the total Marcellus Shale in New York state, while protecting 50 percent of the State's drinking water," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Councilman James Gennaro said the DEC's proposed protections for the region that includes rivers and surface reservoirs supplying drinking water to more than 8 million city residents are "grossly insufficient."

A spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, the largest player in the Marcellus region, said the company would withhold comment until Wednesday's hearing.

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