Yesterday evening, Chesapeake Energy Corp. quietly leaked the news that it would not develop the leases it has purchased for natural gas exploration in the New York City watershed - which supplies clean, unfiltered drinking water to 9 million New Yorkers. There is now no conceivable excuse for New York State not to impose a permanent, legally enforceable ban on any gas drilling, by any company, anywhere within the watershed, ever.
While Chesapeake continues to deny that drilling in the watershed would present any risk to human health or the environment, its decision not to drill there represents at the very least an implicit acknowledgement of what NRDC and slews of others have been saying all along: to do so would be, well, crazy.
The entire western portion of the City's watershed sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a tight rock formation that is believed to contain significant quantities of natural gas that can only be obtained using the controversial hydraulic fracturing technology. Because hydraulic fracturing involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals into the rock to free the gas trapped within it, the fact is that it does run the risk of contaminating the City's drinking water supply if conducted within the watershed. Other aspects of gas production in the Marcellus - including sedimentation from land clearing for well pads, access roads and feeder pipelines, as well as significant hazardous wastes generated throughout well development - would present additional risks to the City's water quality. Addressing contamination by any of these sources would run to the billions of dollars.
So let's be clear about what Chesapeake's announcement does and doesn't mean:
- It does mean that the roughly 5,000 acres leased by Chesapeake will remain undeveloped as long as Chesapeake holds the leases, probably another handful of years in most cases.
- It doesn't mean that those leases won't be purchased by someone else and developed in the future.
- It doesn't mean that any of the remaining thousands of acres of private land in the watershed won't be leased and developed.
- It doesn't mean that - should gas prices rise and the Marcellus prove viable three, five, ten or even twenty years from now - every gas company out there (and there are dozens) won't be knocking on the watershed door. Indeed, given its continued denial of the obvious health risks, there's nothing to say that Chesapeake itself won't come back around. After all, once the companies start drilling in the Marcellus, they will be here for decades.
So, while Chesapeake's announcement sounds the right note, it must be followed by swift action by the state to make the ban on drilling in the NYC watershed complete, permanent, and legally enforceable. Given that the self-proclaimed sole leaseholder in the watershed has claimed it doesn't intend to drill, there can be no further excuse for anything less.
CALL TO ACTION:
In the meantime, of course, NRDC and our allies remain dedicated to ensuring that the remaining parts of the state facing the prospect of Marcellus drilling receive the utmost protections (including additional bans where appropriate). To that end, we continue to work with our technical experts to carefully review the recently released draft generic environmental impact statement and develop a thorough set of recommendations as to its analyses and proposals.
But the state has only given the public 60 days to review this highly technical 809-page document. This is not nearly enough. Call on the Governor now to direct the Department of Environmental Conservation to extend the public comment period by no fewer than an additional 60 days (or January 30, 2010). You can call the Governor at 518-474-8390 or visit his website to email him and send this critical message.
And in the interim, be sure to weigh in at one of the four public hearings DEC is holding on the draft EIS. The first one is at the Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake tonight. The dates and locations of all the hearings (sign-up for all of which starts at 6 pm) are:
- Wednesday, October 28, Sullivan County Community College, E Building, Seelig Theatre, 112 College Rd., Loch Sheldrake, NY 12759.
- Tuesday, November 10, Stuyvesant High School, High School Auditorium, 345 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10282.
- Thursday, November 12, Chenango Valley High School, High School Auditorium, 221 Chenango Bridge Rd., Chenango Bridge, NY 13901.
- Wednesday, November 18, Corning East High School Auditorium, 201 Cantigny Street, Corning, NY 14830.
You can also submit written comments directly via email to DEC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is arguably the most significant new industrial activity proposed in New York in a generation. Let your concerns be heard.