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Despite New York's Order for Environmental Review, Gas Drilling May Proceed

Gov. David Paterson’s executive order for an updated environmental review for gas drilling in New York could take 12 months to complete, but that doesn’t mean drilling in the Marcellus Shale can’t begin in the meantime.

Bulldozers and diggers prepare a meadow for drilling in Susquehanna, Pa. (Credit: Edward Marritz) “The announcement of the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement does not necessarily freeze drilling,” said Judith Enck, the deputy secretary of the environment in the governor's office. “He understands that there are potential economic benefits to upstate New York in terms of job creation and expansion of the tax base. He also thinks that if drilling goes forward he wants it to happen in the most protective way possible.”

The bill the governor signed into law on Wednesday did not rule on whether or not drilling can proceed -- drilling is already allowed in New York -- but is more akin to a zoning regulation. It simplifies the drilling permit application process by standardizing the above-ground spacing between wells and their below ground horizontal reach, rather than leaving those decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.

A joint investigation by ProPublica and WNYC radio this week into regulatory and environmental oversight of the gas industry found the state was relying on a 16-year-old environmental review and had not addressed the gathering of large quantities of water used for drilling, or the treatment of that water as toxic waste.

When he signed the bill, the governor ordered an update to the 1992 generic environmental impact statement, which he recognized did not address the horizontal drilling technology that will be used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that lies 7,000 to 9,000 feet below the southern part of New York state. That review, Enck told ProPublica, will begin with a series of public meetings and information gathering across the state’s southern tier in spring 2009, and result in a new supplemental draft by the following fall.

That process will start the clock ticking for the drilling industry, which has made large investments in land leases that expire in about five years.

Tom West (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica) “Environmental impact statements tend to take some amount of time, probably longer than the industry is going to be willing to wait for them,” said Tom West, president of The West Firm, a lobbying group that represents most of the major gas companies interested in the Marcellus Shale. West says the industry supports a comprehensive environmental review, but needs to move through its exploration phase towards real production at the same time. “What would be nice if it works out is some of these exploration wells get drilled in the meantime, while the GEIS is being assembled.”

One possible kink is that a fresh environmental review could call into question the very spacing bill the governor signed this week, and that leaves environmental groups skeptical of the fine line the state is walking.

“It’s a bit of a piecemeal approach, and it’s too bad because this is a comprehensive problem,” said Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental group that opposes drilling. Gillingham says the governor’s comments still don’t directly address what drilling could mean for the New York City watershed and the city’s drinking water. “Approving this creating more questions.”

Along with the environmental review, Gov. Paterson called for an assessment of staffing and enforcement capabilities at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, a reexamination of jurisdiction over water withdrawals and an evaluation of the overall existing environmental regulatory structure as it relates to drilling.

Asked whether the governor’s requests will translate into action, Enck was firm.

“I think when the governor asks you to do something it’s never informal,” she said.

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