NATURAL GAS:

Fracking foes dominate raucous Manhattan hearing

NEW YORK -- In the first two hours of a state hearing here on hydraulic fracturing yesterday, 30 witnesses approached a microphone in a Lower Manhattan auditorium to tell state regulators what they think about the drilling practice commonly known as fracking.

Of these, just one -- an official from the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance -- spoke in favor of lifting New York's moratorium on drilling for shale gas. The jeers and boos that rained down on him were so intense that the Department of Environmental Conservation moderator official was forced to stop the proceeding and scold the crowd.

"We will wait until everyone behaves," DEC General Counsel Steve Russo said.

This prompted a shout from the back of the auditorium: "You behave!"

And so it went at the hearing, the last of four staged around the state on proposed draft regulations to allow fracking operations for natural gas under the Marcellus Shale.

Some attendees at what felt like an anti-fracking pep rally were borrowed from the Occupy Wall Street movement, with many waving their fingers in the air in a sign of agreement with testimony they liked. And many were middle-aged and older activists who had time to attend an all-day hearing in the middle of the work week.

Josh Fox, director of the documentary film "Gasland," was arguably the most celebrated witness. Fox looked Russo in the eye and told him the state had moved into territory that would not be supported by a majority of New Yorkers.

"Your premise is wrong. Your premise is how do we frack New York," he said. "Your premise should be whether or not to frack New York."

He then demanded the department withdraw its draft rules and an affiliated environmental analysis that many in the environmental community see as giving short shrift to issues like processing fracking wastewater, effects on health and pollution of groundwater supplies.

"This process is a charade, a sham, and it is a false premise," he said.

Others attacked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for initiating the rulemaking process and charged him with rushing regulations under pressure from gas interests for political reasons. They said the rules lacked sufficient details on how the state would treat and dispose of fracking wastewater, finance hundreds of new inspectors needed to police wells and protect New York City's water supply.

State Sen. Tom Duane, a Democrat representing the West Side of Manhattan, urged the DEC to "decelerate" the process and took issue with the Cuomo administration's claims that fracking would help the upstate economy. His comments were fairly typical of the day.

"You're purposely creating a division in New York state between upstate and downstate," he said. "This is hasty."

'Stuff of nightmares'

Richard Gottfried (D), a New York assemblyman and chairman of the Health Committee since 1987, said New York was headed toward creating another Love Canal, in reference to an infamous toxic waste dump from the 1970s. Others called for criminal penalties as part of the rules. And several said they were concerned about water tunnels that pass through upstate on their way to supplying New York City.

The 1,000-foot buffer proposed to protect those tunnels is not enough, said Jim Gennaro, a geologist and member of the N.Y. City Council.

"I'm very concerned for what this means for New York's water tunnels," said Gennaro, citing local fault lines and apparent evidence of an increase in earthquakes in proximity to fracking operations in Oklahoma and Blackpool, England.

Paul Rush, of New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, picked up that thread after he thanked the DEC for banning fracking within the city and in some watersheds upstate. He noted that water infrastructure is often "deep underground" and could easily be damaged by small quakes or horizontal wells that can extend for thousands of feet beyond the proposed 1,000-foot buffer zone.

New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D), from the city's Upper West Side, took the push-back a bit further, saying natural gas companies have promised "big payouts for landowners" even as evidence of local contamination has emerged in places like Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In Dimock, an energy company, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., was forced to deliver water to residents after methane tainted local supplies. Regulators concluded the company drilled faulty wells, though the company denies the charge (E&ENews PM, Oct. 19).

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection now says Cabot can stop the water deliveries (see related story).

"All of this sounds like the stuff of nightmares," Rosenthal said. "This is a bad idea whose time has not come."

The vocal nature of the event was galvanized by recent successes in the environmental community. Activists have claimed a hand in delaying a White House decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring crude from Canada's oil sands region to the Gulf Coast, and postponing a Delaware River Basin Committee vote on fracking. Their next target has emerged in the New York attempt to allow shale gas development.

Jessica Roff, of the Brooklyn Food Coalition and Food & Water Watch, said New Yorkers "don't want another Dimock" and will continue to press their lawmakers to support the current moratorium.

Roff added that the anti-fracking movement numbers in the thousands and continues to gain momentum.

"It is a growing movement," she said, "and we will win."

DEC expands comment period

As the hearing proceeded in Manhattan, regulators in Albany were making a decision under pressure to extend the deadline for public comments on the fracking rules by a month.

The department, without comment, tacked on another month to the process, giving interested parties until Jan. 11 to have their say.

Environmentalists saw the extension as a victory in much the same vein as the Keystone XL pipeline and Delaware Basin postponements. Bruce Ferguson, of the group Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, noted that DEC Commissioner Martens recently said drilling permits in 2012 are now unlikely, and completion of the final regulations continues to slide backward.

"This is our third big win in a month," Ferguson said in an email blast to supporters, adding that the delay, in his view, stems from "evidence that even the highest levels of government are beginning to wake up to the unprecedented risks posed by high-volume fracking."

Industry officials, for their part, said the tenor of yesterday's hearing was expected given the venue in left-leaning Manhattan.

Cathy Kenny, associate director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said she attended the other three hearings, all held upstate, and felt those events were more reflective of a "50-50" split on the issue and were attended by people directly affected by drilling.

"It was really a circus, and [many people] wanted no part of it," she said of the Manhattan hearing.

As for the monthlong delay, Kenny noted that environmental groups had requested 180 days. Her group, which is an arm of the American Petroleum Council, is "not looking at winnings or losses or how many people attend a hearing," she said.

Kenny also argued that much of the feedback at yesterday's hearing had more to do with "theatrics" than a reasoned discussion of the environmental impact analysis prepared by the state. On the question of a 1,000-foot buffer, she said that sort of room is unnecessary.

"We can drill without incident 2 feet from an aquifer," she said. "The 1,000-foot buffer from our view is unreasonable and going even further is more unreasonable."

Click here to see a Web page on New York's proposed fracking rules.

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.