With EPA launching first-of-its-kind study, no excuse for NY to rush forward with drilling in the Marcellus

NRDC and its ally, Catskill Mountainkeeper, have begun running a new series of ads in upstate communities potentially affected by proposed industrial gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus Shale.  You can listen to them here.  We’ll be following up with a second run of spots in Albany, as well as a new ad in the Legislative Gazette.

While we are in a bit of a regulatory down-time as the state evaluates the 14,000 comments it received on its flawed draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement (the draft SGEIS) for new gas production in the Marcellus, this is no time to step down our efforts to ensure that the state not move towards finalizing that document or issuing permits without issuing a substantially revised draft study for public review.  As I have previously blogged, NRDC submitted almost three hundred pages of highly scientific technical comments identifying a slew of fatal deficiencies in the draft SGEIS.  Other highly critical technical comments were submitted by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, federal Environmental Protection Agency, and thousands of elected officials, environmental groups and individuals across the state.

Taken as a whole, there can be no question that the only appropriate course of action is issuance of a new draft.  As we wrote in our comments, for the state to proceed on the basis of the current document would be “not only grossly irresponsible but illegal.”  Unless and until it can be demonstrated that the state can safely regulate gas production from the Marcellus Shale, it must not be allowed to proceed.

In the meantime, EPA is moving forward with the planning for its study of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing in unconventional gas plays like the Marcellus.  NRDC joined Riverkeeper and other waterkeepers in submitting written comments on the scope of the proposed study last week.  Tomorrow, I will be traveling down to Washington to supplement with oral comments.  Among our major points to EPA are the following:

  • The need to conduct actual field studies across a range of unconventional gas developments, rather than relying on existing data from state regulators and/or existing literature.
  • The need to proceed with a broad scope of study, i.e., consideration of (1) all the related development activities necessarily associated with hydraulic fracturing in development of unconventional gas plays, including exploration, drilling, production, waste management, etc., and (2) additional impacts beyond those to water quality, including air quality impacts associated with this same full range of activities.
  • The need to evaluate impacts on a cumulative – rather than wellpad-by-wellpad – basis.  (This correlates to one of primary criticisms of the NY draft SGEIS, which failed to consider impacts as they happen in the real world: with multiple wellpads being developed in a region at a time.)
  • The need to consider the availability of non-toxic drilling and fracking fluids.
  • The need to ensure an independent, unbiased expert committee with peer review of the draft study results.

Assuming EPA in fact intends to undertake a study that is broad-based, well-designed and unbiased, it will be an unprecedented scientifically sound examination of the risks and threats associated with drilling in unconventional gas plays.  In that case, it would foolish for DEC not to also hold off moving forward with permitting drilling in New York State pending the outcome of the study.

Indeed, the stars are all aligned in a way that says “slow down, New York.”  Natural gas prices are in the tank.  The governor is a lame duck.  EPA is poised to conduct the first credible, comprehensive examination of hydraulic fracturing.  And the gas isn’t going anywhere.  To squander the opportunity to serve as a model of how to proceed responsibly would be foolish, and more important, likely result in harm to New Yorkers’ environment, communities, homes and possibly their health.