Gulf oil spill energizes foes of NY shale drilling

BINGHAMTON, New York Mon Sep 13, 2010 5:44pm EDT

Protesters against the drilling process of hydraulic fracturing for extracting natural gas take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in Albany, New York January 25, 2010. REUTERS/Hans Pennink

Protesters against the drilling process of hydraulic fracturing for extracting natural gas take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in Albany, New York January 25, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Hans Pennink

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BINGHAMTON, New York (Reuters) - Critics of natural gas drilling in New York on Monday urged U.S. regulators to enact tougher regulations, saying the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proves the industry cannot be trusted.

More than 1,600 officials and citizens were due to testify over two days at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stakeholder meeting in Binghamton, in upstate New York.

Critics and supporters of drilling turned out to voice their opinions as part of the EPA's two-year study on possible impacts of high-volume horizontal gas drilling on drinking water.

"After what happened in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, we simply cannot rely on oil and gas industry to tell the truth to keep us safe," said U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat who represents part of western New York.

Hydraulic fracturing involves blasting a mixture of five million gallons of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock that sits as deep as a mile underground.

It can involve six separate wells on a single drilling pad with drilling in multiple directions.

Gas companies such as Chesapeake Energy Corp had hoped to begin drilling in New York as early as this year, but environmental groups point to cases of water contamination in towns such as Dimock, Pennsylvania, as evidence that the risks must be better understood before New York opens its doors to drilling.

The public meeting near the New York-Pennsylvania border marked the agency's fourth and last stop in the United States, after similar hearings were held in Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

"We've seen evidence from all across the country of environmental degradation," said Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan. "We need to get it right."

Ryan said the state should hold off issuing drilling permits until the EPA has concluded its review and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) can conduct a separate study.

He said that process could take "a long time."

About 200 opponents of gas drilling stood outside the Forum Theater in Binghamton, which sits over the massive Marcellus shale rock formation, holding signs saying: "They said it was safe to drill in the Gulf too."

Across the road, a slightly smaller crowd held signs reading "Yes to science, No to Paranoia" and described themselves as the "true environmentalists."

"We're not going to let some gas company come in and ruin our property," said Martha Kirby, who owns 122 acres in Chenango Forks, New York, that she hopes to lease to a gas company.

"The folks that keep asking for studies, there will never be enough studies for them," said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition. He said deep water oil drilling and shale gas drilling had nothing in common.

Asked if he worried the public was turning against drilling, he said: "A well-educated landowner is our strongest ally."

By some estimates, the Marcellus shale holds enough gas to meet U.S. demand for at least a decade.

Environmental groups were initially supportive of gas drilling, describing it as a domestic "bridge fuel" to renewable sources and away from foreign oil and coal.

"The more we learn about the risks of hydraulic fracturing, the more skeptical we are that regulatory agencies have adequately considered the potential adverse environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing," said Craig Michaels, the Watershed Program director at the environmental group Riverkeeper.

Also on Monday, the environmental group Riverkeeper released a report on the environmental impact of drilling. There have been four cases of well blowouts and operator errors, three cases of water contamination and illegal discharges, six cases of surface water spills and 15 cases of stray gas migration involving the Marcellus shale, the water quality watchdog group said.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and David Gregorio)

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