New York State sues federal government over gas drilling

NEW YORK Tue May 31, 2011 4:02pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State sued the U.S. government on Tuesday to demand a ban on gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin until an environmental impact study has been conducted to protect New York City's water supply.

The Delaware River Basin Commission has proposed rules that would allow up to 18,000 gas wells within the basin -- which sits in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and includes parts of New York City's watershed.

Its proposals include allowing horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- a controversial drilling technique that involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into deep shale rock to free the gas trapped inside.

But in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said those regulations should not even be considered until the environmental impact of the drilling has been studied.

"Before any decisions on drilling are made, it is our responsibility to follow the facts and understand the public health and safety effects posed by potential natural gas development," Schneiderman said in a statement.

Environmentalists say fracking can contaminate groundwater with dangerous chemicals, but the industry insists it is safe.

A spokesman for the Delaware River Basin Commission was not immediately available to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Schneiderman's lawsuit demands that a U.S. study consider risks including the "withdrawal of large volumes of water ... potential contamination of drinking water supplies, waste generation, increased noise, dust and air pollution, and potential harms to community infrastructure and character from increased industrial activity."

Fracking has unlocked vast potential for a relatively clean energy source that would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The Marcellus Shale, which underlies much of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states including western New York, could meet all U.S. natural gas demand for decades.

But while Pennsylvania is experiencing a gas drilling boom with widespread fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation, New York state has been more cautious, saying the economic benefits must be weighed against environmental concerns.

In December, New York announced a moratorium on issuing permits for fracking, and the state Department of Environment Conservation is in the process of an environmental review.

(Reporting by Edith Honan, editing by Michelle Nichols and Lisa Shumaker)

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