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Dan Hust | Democrat

A CROWD OF more than 100 turned out to Cornell Cooperative Extension's offices in Liberty Tuesday for a gas drilling informational seminar led by NYS Division of Mineral Resources Director Brad Field.

State overseer on gas drilling: operations safe

By Dan Hust
LIBERTY — July 4, 2008 — Tuesday’s forum on gas drilling was markedly different from last Friday’s panel.
Friday’s event, organized by the Sullivan County government and Catskill Mountainkeeper, featured five panelists warning of the dangers of gas drilling.
Held at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Liberty, Tuesday’s forum featured Brad Field, director of the state’s Division of Mineral Resources, assuring that the state fully intends to maintain a stellar track record in monitoring and mitigating the impacts of gas drilling.
While Field did acknowledge as incorrect NYS Senator John Bonacic’s claim that not one of the state’s 75,000 gas wells ever had environmental problems, he said significant issues “are very, very minor and very low-frequency.”
In fact, his Powerpoint presentation showed that there has never been one instance of drinking water contamination during more than 1 million hydraulic fracturing jobs in the state.
And that includes horizontal wells, which he confirmed actually have been drilled in New York.
“This is not a new technology,” he remarked. “And it is a technology that is safe.”
Field acknowledged that nothing is 100 percent risk-free, “but we’ve had great success with hydraulic fracturing in New York.”
Indeed, 55 billion cubic feet of natural gas was mined in New York last year (about five percent of the state’s annual consumption), reaching $513 million in market value, $64 million in owner royalties and $15 million in local taxes.
“There is a significant benefit to the Southern Tier by this activity,” said Field.
An extensive question-and-answer period followed from an audience that exceeded 120 people, from politicians to farmers.
Through it all, Field continued to assure that his division and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which oversees Mineral Resources, will work with gas and oil companies, residents and local leaders to ensure safe operations.
A good portion of the Q&A focused on water contamination, with Catskill Mountainkeeper Program Director Wes Gillingham contending that much of the documented contamination around well sites came not from the well itself but open pits that store the 1-5 million gallons of water used in the fracking process.
Though it’s eventually trucked away to authorized, off-site disposal sites, the water has at times seeped out of the pits (at least in other states), resulting in a push to use enclosed steel tanks instead. (New York does not mandate such tanks.)
As for where that water comes from in the first place, Field said he’s of the understanding that gas companies are looking for surface, not underground, water sources. Operators must work with the Delaware River Basin Commission in this area, and he urged residents to ensure leases protect the quality and quantity of their groundwater.
But, he added, “these companies are not desiring to drain your water supply – that’s not a good outcome.”
He said his division has requested every company seeking to drill wells in the state submit a list of chemicals used in the fracking process, though the state’s position is that fracking remains a safe procedure under current regulations.
He acknowledged that people living close to drilling sites – 24/7 operations that are noisy and brightly lit for 3-5 weeks until the well is in operation – might have “temporary quality-of-life issues” but promised that the DEC would seriously investigate any problems.
He also mentioned that gas companies must provide a $250,000 bond for each well, in anticipation of the day it has to be plugged and the possibility the company in question may no longer exist.
“I’m a little bit surprised to see it’s such a utopia here,” remarked Cochecton Deputy Supervisor Larry Richardson. “. . . What leverage does a local community have with the gas companies to try to extract some benefits?”
Field’s staff confirmed that local municipalities have limited regulatory abilities, as state law allows only local oversight of taxes and roads.
Thus the moratoria that townships are considering are of questionable legality.
“In our opinion,” said Mineral Resources Program Counsel Jennifer Harry, “I don’t think those moratoriums would survive a challenge.”
“We’re looking at it as a way to buy time,” replied Highland Supervisor Tina Palecek, whose township just enacted such a moratorium due to town leaders’ concerns about infrastructure, personnel and budgeting as they relate to gas drilling activities. “We’re not trying to hinder an industry. We’re trying to be as prepared as possible.”
Harry understood those concerns and responded that moratoria on this issue are “something that has not really been tested that much in New York.”
Field added that the state would indeed like the gas drilling industry “to be more proactive,” especially with residents from whom they seek leases.
Attendees had advice along those lines. Accountant Susan Brown Otto recommended landowners obtain tax advice from a professional before signing leases. Former Cornell leader Gerald Skoda urged leaders to pursue “host benefits,” since their communities will in essence be hosting these wells (e.g. a road that was rebuilt by Marcy South when its powerlines came through). And current Cornell director Joe Walsh assured farmers that only the well sites will be taxed differently should they lease large portions of their ag district land to drillers.
One audience member calculated that the Division of Mineral Resources will only have one inspector for every 750 wells, using Field’s remark that he employs 19 inspectors.
While happy to have more staff, Field expressed confidence that his division could handle the expected influx of drilling activity and is actually planning another public meeting in the area to answer more questions.
He also said his staff is researching the issues that happened out west with wells and will take whatever time is necessary to review drilling applications in New York.
“Our oversight of the industry will proceed at our pace,” he explained. “… If applications stack up, then they are going to stack up.”
Nevertheless, he was adamant that the DEC will promptly respond to issues and complaints.
In fact, Field openly questioned why people are so quick to believe that the negative accounts of well drilling somehow represent the entire industry, especially as it pertains to New York State.
“I don’t understand why the examples that are being put out there aren’t showing New York wells,” he pointed out. “Why is that so?
“We just aren’t seeing those types of problems here."

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