Next week will mark the first meeting of the advisory panel appointed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to provide input on several matters of primary importance if the state decides to move forward with a program to permit proposed new fracking. Importantly, the purpose of the panel is not to supersede or supplant the on-going environmental review process being undertaken by DEC. Rather, it is to provide advice on a discrete set of issues that, while certainly appropriate subjects for consideration and comment in the context of that review, the agency believes can benefit from the input of outside experts.
In particular, the advisory panel is charged with:
- developing recommendations to ensure DEC and other agencies are enabled to properly oversee, monitor and enforce regulations governing high-volume hydraulic fracturing activities;
- developing recommendations to avoid and mitigate impacts to local governments and communities; and
- evaluating the current fee structure and other revenue streams to fund government oversight and infrastructure related to high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
NRDC was appointed to one of twelve spots presently identified on the panel (the full list of current participants is available here; the appointment of several additional participants is anticipated).
We take very seriously the obligations inherent in our appointment to help shape the state’s approach to any new fracking that may be permitted in New York. We believe we have a responsibility to our members, and to all New Yorkers, to do all we can and take every opportunity presented us to ensure that the very real risks are fully evaluated and that new fracking not be allowed to proceed unless and until the state can demonstrate that our health and environment will be protected to the maximum possible extent.
We wanted to take this occasion – before the panel meets for the first time – to lay out clearly our goals and expectations for the panel’s work.
Following are several key points which NRDC believes are critical to the fair and effective conduct of the panel, and for which we have and will continue to advocate:
- Timing: As indicated above, the panel must be advisory only and in no way trump or circumvent the continuing environmental review process being undertaken pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Further, neither the work of the panel nor any other element should rush the ongoing SEQRA process. The state must take whatever time is necessary to fully, fairly and properly evaluate the potential impacts of new fracking before making any decisions about whether, and if so how, to move forward.
- Public input: The panel’s work should not be secret, and should benefit from broad public input. Similar to the Oil Spill Commission appointed by the President in the wake of the BP Gulf spill disaster DEC should schedule one or more open meetings at which the panel can receive the testimony of the potentially affected public. This will ensure that any voices that might not otherwise be represented through the panel’s membership receive an opportunity to be heard.
- Regulations before permitting: DEC must hold to its commitment to a formal rulemaking that will memorialize all proposed safeguards in official, legally enforceable, uniform regulations following completion of the environmental review process. NRDC will continue to urge that no permits be issued (and that no consideration of permits commence) prior to completion of that rulemaking process.
- Add a grassroots group to the panel: We are concerned that there is currently no grassroots representation. The grassroots are every bit as informed, sophisticated and active on the critical issues involving proposed new fracking in New York as any established non-governmental organization in the state, and warrant representation should they desire it. (We will also fight to ensure that final representation on the panel is balanced and no undue weight is given to the industry.)
- No new drilling without adequate regulatory resources: Of paramount importance is that DEC is held to its commitment of limiting any permit issuance to match the availability of resources necessary to review and approve permit applications, inspect activities and enforce permit conditions and regulations for various facets of drilling operations. Even without any future gas drilling, DEC faces tremendous challenges with regards to site inspections, citizen complaint response and enforcement of permit violations under already-established programs. In this context, it is troubling that DEC anticipates processing applications for (and potentially permitting) an average of 1,600 wells per year. This is an issue that must be front and center in the panel’s deliberations.
Finally, consistent with the on-going and evolutionary nature of the state’s consideration of the difficult issues surrounding proposed new fracking in New York, NRDC welcomes input from our allies who are not formal participants on the panel. We hope to give voice to the broad range of concerns that should be evaluated before the state makes any decisions about moving ahead with this controversial and risky new activity.
A personal note: Beginning Monday, I will be out on maternity leave, but NRDC will remain thoroughly engaged in this issue of utmost importance to New Yorkers and their environment. During my absence, my colleagues Eric Goldstein (who is also on the advisory panel), Rich Schrader and Mark Izeman will continue to post regularly on fracking in New York. And my colleague Amy Mall will of course continue to post on national oil and gas development matters.