A GAS DRILLING rig in operation.
Paterson signs natural gas bill, directs DEC to review standards
By Dan Hust
ALBANY On the one hand, Governor David Paterson’s signing of a natural gas bill will streamline the regulatory process for companies interested in drilling in New York State.
But an accompanying executive directive to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will simultaneously slow down the process, as well.
On Wednesday, Paterson signed into law a bill that specifically addresses the permitting process for horizontal well drilling, a newer technology than the vertical drilling the state has long regulated.
According to a press release issued by the governor’s office, “The Environmental Conservation Law previously established spacing units and setback requirements only for some types of drilling activity. A spacing unit is the land area from which a well is expected to recover oil or gas; a setback is the distance that a well must be from the boundaries of the spacing unit.
“The bill also adds requirements about how wells may be located within spacing units. The new requirements will lead to greater administrative efficiency, result in more effective recovery of oil and natural gas, and reduce unnecessary land disturbance.”
Though not included in the bill itself, Paterson also issued a directive to the DEC to prepare an updated Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) to ensure that all environmental impacts from drilling are addressed.
“The update will examine potential impacts from new horizontal drilling techniques, including potential impacts to groundwater, surface water, wetlands, air quality, aesthetics, noise, traffic and community character, as well as cumulative impacts,” said the governor’s office. “The update will occur as part of a public process that ensures that concerns raised by residents who could be affected by drilling activities are heard and considered.”
In other words, public comment periods and hearings will be set as the DEC revises the 16-year-old GEIS focusing on gas drilling.
That’s where Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer is urging people to get involved, and his office is planning to send out a letter to local townships and villages to that effect.
He said the state needs locals’ “very critical input” over the next few months.
Pammer wished Paterson had vetoed the bill so as to force the Legislature to further address environmental impacts, but he acknowledged that scrutiny will now be specifically applied to the coming wave of horizontal drilling.
And he noted that the press release specifically stated that the DEC “will also be looking at ways to enhance the role of local governments in the regulatory process and compliance.”
“I’m curious to see how this is going to unfold,” he said.
Already, state officials have told the media that no drilling permits will be issued until state environmental reviews of both the project and the overall industry are complete.
They’ve also stated they’ll demand a list of the chemicals gas drillers use in the controversial fracking process, heretofore considered “trade secrets.”
And the DEC has been directed to review its staffing and policies “over water withdrawals, permit application fees and procedures, and legal and regulatory compliance, that could be implicated by increased drilling activity,” said the release.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther feels Paterson’s actions will “balance progress with making sure we keep the environment safe.”
Though she voted against the bill when it passed through the Assembly saying it was “on too much of a fast track” Gunther felt the bill and related directive will still make a positive difference.
“We do have time on our hands,” she said, referring to state officials’ projection of a spring completion date for the GEIS and the fact that no drilling permits have yet been applied for in Sullivan County. “... There are a lot of things to take care of.”
She encouraged citizens to call her at 794-5807 if they have any questions or concerns about the process from here on out.
As for NYS Senator John Bonacic, “The gas drilling law gives the DEC, never known to be shy about regulating anything, a firm set of minimum standards. I do believe those standards could have been even more restrictive, but this is a starting point.
“I also believe local governments should have a stronger hand in protecting its highway infrastructure and in regulating drilling,” he continued, “and I will be introducing legislation to give our towns the ability to address the issues important to them.”