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Dan Hust | Democrat

AFTER THE CLOSING remarks of the three-hour panel discussion on gas drilling, the general consesus is that gas drilling in Sullivan County is only just beginning.

Get ready for drilling

By Dan Hust
LIBERTY — July 1, 2008 — Despite its three-hour length and five presenters, Friday’s forum on gas drilling featured several clear threads:
• Gas drilling is coming to Sullivan County.
• It brings with it the promise of increased wealth and business but also the danger of environmental damage.
• Residents and leaders need to be very careful – and pro-active – in how they handle this development.
There was some talk on writing leases, but the more than 400 attendees who packed the Liberty High School’s auditorium heard far more about the potential environmental consequences and the ways to mitigate them.
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 3 Director Willie Janeway was in attendance only to listen, but he did promise the DEC will protect the environment in partnership with those who were there.
According to most of the speakers, the DEC will have its job cut out for it.
Jill Morrison, organizer of the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming, called her neck of the woods “Saudi Arabia,” noting that three million tons of coal alone are exported every year.
Morrison has worked with landowners and mineral rights developers for two decades and said her region expects to see 51,000 coal bed methane gas wells drilled over the next 10 years.
She acknowledged that some individuals and state government have reaped large profits, but from noisy compressor stations to huge increases in truck traffic, the land and its people have suffered.
“We were not able to get out in front of this,” she lamented. “. . . So I hope things will be better for you and more positive for you.”
Morrison presented a slide show of the negative effects gas drilling has had on her home area, including landscapes crisscrossed with wells and roads.
She linked an 85 percent decline in the Greater Sage Grouse population to the presence of gas drilling.
“Where we are became the poster child for how not to do it,” she remarked.
Peggy Utesch had a similar experience. Also present with a slide show, she was representing the Western Colorado Congress and the Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance, of which she is a member.
After noting that no one from the industry seemed to be present (not a hand was raised in the audience when she asked), she told the crowd how in 2003, “the gas industry came in and my dream went away.”
Over 100 trucks started pounding her road every day, far more than the 10 she used to see daily. A nearby 40-acre site was contaminated by drilling, she said, yet the gas company only cleaned up the wellpad itself. More than 30 wells were drilled within a mile of her home – and the state issued 35 violations against those wells in 2004 alone.
“We had a lot of ranchers that were put out of business,” she recounted, due to the environmental degradation.
Utesch’s own well was contaminated, but because she had done no baseline testing prior to drilling to establish the normal mineral content, she could not pursue legal action against the gas company.
A nearby city saw its ozone levels double after gas drilling started, and employment and real estate opportunities became difficult.
These were stories Bruce Baizel had heard many times before, often in his capacity as staff attorney for the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
A resident of southwestern Colorado, he said the western part of the country learned the hard way that gas and oil companies comprise, first and foremost, an industry.
“This is an industrial use – be very clear about that,” he remarked, warning that conflict will arise without a clear set of expectations and goals by all sides “because it’s pretty disruptive.”
He also cautioned that accidents can happen, from well blowouts to leaking waste pits to water truck spills. He noted that Colorado has seen 1,500 instances of groundwater contamination in the last five years.
Baizel worried in particular about whether the NYS DEC has enough staff to handle the influx of gas drilling and wells, noting that if they don’t, “then things can get sloppy, and you can have problems.”
Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Dr. William Pammer, who co-organized the forum with Catskill Mountainkeeper, worried about the state too.
“The current Environmental Conservation Law basically removes the policing of gas and oil companies” by local municipalities, Pammer related.
Impacts are inevitable, he assured, and communities need to be ready with ideas like road assessment plans in anticipation of the heavy truck traffic.
“We are very naive about what is involved in this activity,” he said.
“New York is a strong home rule state,” Pammer concluded. “And municipalities need to be involved in this.”
Earlier that day, he had urged the same to a group of town and village leaders during a shorter version of Friday evening’s seminar.
Politicians and citizens alike listened intently when attorney Robert Wedlake said that a separate tax bill will be generated and sent to gas companies for any drilling activity.
Thus, property taxes should not significantly affect landowners simply due to the presence of gas wells.
“If property values in general increase . . . then of course that may have some impact on your property taxes,” he added.
Wedlake is a partner with Hinman, Howard and Kattell in Binghamton and has negotiated gas leases on behalf of property owners in central and western New York.
He was blunt about drilling: though it lasts only a few weeks, it involves 24/7 lighting and transportation, construction of roads up to 75 feet wide, and a minimum of 1 million gallons of trucked-in water to fracture the shale in order to release the gas (up to 5 million gallons in horizontal wells).
Wedlake said he doesn’t advise clients to go ahead with or back off of drilling, but he does attempt to negotiate terms with the gas companies that protect his clients’ properties, assets and interests.
When all is said and done, those clients can reap hundreds to thousands of dollars not just in upfront lease payments but in royalties, should the well produce.
That, however, usually means that a typical 5-7-year lease can be extended for 30, 40 or more years – till the well stops producing.
For those uninterested in signing leases, he cautioned that if a gas company is leasing or owns at least 60 percent of the properties within state-designated spacing units, property owners within that unit will all have to come to agreements with the company, even if it’s just for royalty payments.
And, of course, the acquisition of mineral rights can affect a property’s marketability – for better or for worse, depending upon a buyer’s perspective. (Though he did note that a good lease will indemnify property owners from lawsuits.)
So what should residents of Sullivan County do on the cusp of this major development?
“If there ever was a time for grassroots, this is it,” said Utesch, urging residents to pressure their local and state legislators to ensure gas companies don’t harm the environment.
Morrison argued for phased development in particular, in order to assess the individual impacts on communities.
“You can be sure that wherever you go, it presents unique challenges, unique problems and unique opportunities,” she said.
“I would say a moratorium is justified,” she added. “. . . You just should not be in a hurry on this. It’s to the industry’s advantage to go quickly.”
Pammer and co-organizer Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, hope Friday’s seminar began turning the advantage towards locals.
“I felt like our forum did that,” Gillingham said yesterday, speaking of addressing community impacts. “The presentations were varied . . . [and] I felt like it went really well.”
Both he and Pammer noted no one said residents should try to stop gas drilling. Indeed, Pammer is of the mind that preparation is key now.
“I thought the seminar covered important areas,” Pammer said, pleased to see that people who were close to signing leases stayed for the entire three hours. “. . . The feedback I got [from those for and against gas drilling] was it was balanced.”

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