DEC head says fracking can be done safely

New York’s conservation chief said today that hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of deep d

New York’s conservation chief said today that hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of deep drilling for natural gas, can be done safely with proper precautions, and he named an advisory panel including top environmentalists.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens’ comments came a day after his agency outlined recommendations to permit hydraulic fracturing in most of the state’s potentially lucrative Marcellus Shale formation across the state’s Southern Tier. No permits will be issued until after public comments, further review and final regulations, probably in late fall or early winter, he said.

The DEC would prohibit “hydrofracking” in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds — including the Schoharie Reservoir in southern Schoharie County — on state land and within primary aquifers. The technology extracts natural gas from shale by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground to create fissures in the rock and release the gas. Most drilling will be at least 2,000 feet deep and can reach 4,000 both vertically and horizontally, officials said.

“I believe it can be done safely with all the precautions we’ve built into the process,” Martens said. His agency submitted a 600-page report Friday to Gov. Andrew Cuomo with recommendations revised from the DEC’s previous study and containing more protections against polluting drinking water.

They include no drilling permits within 500 feet of a private water well or within 2,000 feet of a public drinking water well or reservoir, generally requiring a third casing around each well to prevent gas leaks, requiring watertight tanks to contain flowback water and a DEC-approved plan for disposal of waste water or brine. Applicants would have to fully disclose all chemicals used.

Based on experience in Pennsylvania, one of a half-dozen states with hydrofracking, there could be an estimated 1,600 to 2,400 drilling sites in New York at the peak, Martens said, noting the agency has limited staff at this point to handle permit applications. “We’ll consider those applications we feel we have adequate staff to manage and monitor,” he said.

Cuomo said Friday he will continue to review the report and that he trusts the agency’s professional staff to carry through the review “to its appropriate conclusion,” with an advisory panel of nationally recognized experts to help guide the process.

“The DEC’s decision was based on rigorous testing, research, facts and science, not politics or ideology on the issue,” Cuomo said. “The DEC carefully balances the need to protect our environment and ensure the safety of the drinking water of millions of New Yorkers and at the same time charts a possible path forward to extract these natural resources safely and under aggressive and effective regulation.”

The 12-member advisory panel is to recommend measures ensuring strong state oversight, protecting communities and examining drilling fees and oversight funding. It includes senior attorneys Eric Goldstein and Kate Sinding from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert Kennedy Jr. Among the others are state Senate Republican Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous of Binghamton, a supporter of drilling, and Mark Boling, Southwestern Energy’s general counsel and executive vice president.

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