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What's at stake in this week's fracking hearings

Public hearings on natural gas-related issues, like this one in September in Watkins Glen, New York, tend to draw large crowds whenever they happen.
Matt Richmond
Public hearings on natural gas-related issues, like this one in September in Watkins Glen, New York, tend to draw large crowds whenever they happen.

New Yorkers have watched closely as fracking unfolded in Pennsylvania. Some are wary that environmental abuses could happen here - while others are eager for the economic boom drilling could bring.

Now both sides will get a chance to weigh in during public hearings coming up this week.

The hearings are the first set in the final run-up to horizontal hydrofracking being permitted in New York State.  The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will be taking comments on November 16 from 1 to 4 p.m., and then 6 to 9 p.m., in the Dansville Middle School Auditorium, in Dansville, N.Y.  On November 17, the DEC will be at the Forum Theatre in Binghamton, from 1 to 4 p.m., and 6 to 9 p.m.  

Two more hearings in New York City and Loch Sheldrake are scheduled for the end of the month. Details on how to testify are here. Comments can also be submitted electronically.

At each of the hearings, anti-fracking groups are planning rallies outside. The Washington-based environmental group Food and Water Watch is apparently recruiting for its anti-fracking activities among protesters at Zuccotti Park.

All signs point to "slow down"

In a September letter to the DEC from industry group, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGA), drilling proponents argue that New York's regulations are likely to make it $1 million more expensive per well to drill here.

"In the final analysis, the regulatory proposals being put forth by the DEC relative to shale gas
development in New York State do not send the signal that New York State is 'open for business'," the letter charges.

But just because the gas companies are dissatisfied, doesn't mean environmentalists are happy.

The DEC has a long way to go before fracking can be done safely, warns Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates of New York.

"At this point, the state is proposing a plan that is incredibly flawed," she argues. "[It] will not protect our water, will not protect our communities, and the state does not have the staff to back up the plan, even as written."

Nadeau's group is calling for a more complete study of fracking's effect on local communities and public health, and more restrictions on the transport, storage and disposal of drilling waste. But she acknowledges that the state's pace on permitting fracking does appear to have slowed.

"That's a good thing because every day that goes by, there are more reports from other parts of the country where fracking is already happening. There are more reports coming out from government entities that are looking at the real impacts and real costs of fracking - and all signs point to 'slow down'," says Nadeau.

Budgeting delays at the various state agencies that will be affected by fracking are the source of the slow down, according to DEC commissioner Joe Martens - a tacit recognition that the state doesn't really know what sort of costs fracking will bring.

Recommendations from the governor's drilling advisory panel have also been delayed. The DEC won't have the numbers on how much it will cost to safely regulate fracking before the governor presents his budget for next year, which means the DEC might not start issuing drilling permits until 2013.

"Time for action is now"

These delays have started to frustrate pro-fracking groups. A new group called Clean Growth Now touts the economic benefits of fracking. Lou Santoni is a member of the new group, and the president of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce. He says New York has spent enough time learning about the issue.

"We could talk about this for ever. And it seems like we've delayed this a year and then another year and another year. I think the time for action is now," says Santoni.

All sides are vying to influence what goes into the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS, on hydrofracking. The final document will be used to craft regulations on fracking, though the DEC has already gotten a head start on drafting those regulations.

Martens says public input from previous public hearings helped forge two major changes in this version of the SGEIS: recommendations to prohibit drilling on state lands, and a prohibition on fracking in the Syracuse and New York City watersheds to protect them from contamination.

"I'm confident that we'll make plenty of changes as a result of the input we get from the public as a result of this," he says.

After this month's public hearings, the public comment period officially wraps up on December 12 (though fracking opponents have called for an extension on that deadline).  Next up for the DEC will be a final SGEIS, then regulations - and, only then, could the agency possibly begin to consider drilling applications.

WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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