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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state would throw open its share of one of the world's richest natural gas deposits to drilling under recommendations made by its environmental agency, creating a potential boom feared by environmentalists.
While taking steps to protect New York City's drinking water, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recommendations to Governor Andrew Cuomo would lift an effective moratorium on the controversial natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing.
Also called "fracking" or "hydrofracking," the process blasts vast amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep into shale rock, freeing trapped gas. Critics say leaks of the chemicals at the surface endanger groundwater and that drilling operations pollute the air.
"The summary announced today seems to completely ignore the fact that the fracking is unsafe and that the industrial waste produced by this process is hazardous and needs to be treated as such," said Ramsay Adams, executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.
Industry officials say opponents have exaggerated the environmental impact, while economic benefits to the state would be significant. New York is home to a large piece of the Marcellus Shale, a massive formation believed to be one of the richest natural gas deposits on the planet.
Natural gas drilling in New York state would lead to $11.4 billion in economic output and raise $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to a study led by Timothy Considine, a professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming and an advocate for drilling in New York.
"Governor Cuomo has made a courageous and sound decision based on the facts and the merits of shale drilling," Considine said. "The upstate New York economy is quite depressed and needs a shot in the arm. This will be very good for that particular region."
The DEC's recommendations could become law after a 60-day period for public comment and an environmental impact statement. The agency recommended not drilling in the watersheds that serve New York City and Syracuse.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the DEC made the right decision in rejecting drilling in the city's watershed.
"Governor Cuomo and (DEC) Commissioner Joseph Martens deserve an enormous amount of credit for protecting the unfiltered drinking water supplies of more than 9 million New Yorkers, while increasing our ability to harness the benefits of New York's natural gas resources," Bloomberg said in a statement.
Sheldon Silver, New York Assembly Speaker and a Manhattan Democrat, urged the state to wait until the federal Environmental Protection Agency finishes its review.
"There are simply too many unknowns to risk inflicting long-term, potentially catastrophic damage to New York's environment and water supply," he said.
Drilling also would be banned within primary aquifers and surface drilling prohibited on state-owned land, including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas.
Environmentalists have argued that if drilling in the watershed is unsafe, it should be considered unsafe anywhere.
"All parts of the state deserve to be protected equally from this environmentally destructive drilling technique," Environmental Advocates of New York said in a statement.
Considine, the University of Wyoming professor, looked at the environmental impact of drilling in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania to gauge the impact in New York. Of the 2,139 wells drilled from 2008 to 2010 in the Pennsylvania Marcellus shale, 1,924 incurred environmental violations, the report said.
Additional reporting by Edward McAllister; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dale Hudson and Lisa Shumaker