Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Discusses Fracking

Updated: September 14, 2011 at 06:00 AM

Hydraulic fracking in Burlington, PA. The Department of Environmental Conservation's most recent report on the benefits and risks of fracking in New York could pave the way for the state to issue permits. AP/Ralph Wilson.

On Sept. 13, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens gave an exclusive interview to the Capitol Report‘s Susan Arbetter about hydraulic fracking in the state. The commissioner defended the DEC’s 96-day public comment period on the controversial issue and offered somewhat vague insight into the DEC’s plans to examine the safety of fracking in flood-prone areas.

On Sept. 7, the DEC released a long-awaited full draft of its report on the economic benefits, as well as the social and environmental risks, of hydraulic fracking in the state.

“Fracking,” as the controversial drilling message is commonly called, is the method of extracting natural gas from shale rock far below the Earth’s surface using a mixture of water and chemicals.

The release of the report ushers in a public comment period that lasts until Dec. 12, thus extending the original plans from a 60-day period to 96 days.

Environmental groups say that due to the 1,500-page length and complexity of the report, the period should be extended to 180 days, reported Gotham Gazette. The gas industry, on the other hand, believes the 60-day comment period was sufficient, reported Reuters.

When Arbetter asked Martens if the DEC would consider extending the comment period, he responded, “We’re not considering extra time at this point. 96 days is actually the formal public coment period and we’ve committed to four public hearings. We’re still working on the locations…but we have a bit of logistical work to do.”


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The Capitol Report’s Susan Arbetter in an exclusive interview with New York State DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. Martens discusses fracking, flood planes and the public comment period. Video courtesy of WCNY.

In November, the DEC will hold four open meetings for the public to express their opinions on the report. The locations of those meetings will be released in October. It’s likely that a decision will be made on whether to lift the ban on fracking and issue drilling permits as early as January, when the final version of the DEC report comes out. If the comments popping up all over the web are any indication, these meetings are going to be volatile.

“One hundred years from now when the entire state is poisoned, what good will all the money and energy we’ll have burned do? Thanks Dems!” read one comment on the New York Times’ website.

What the frack? Fracking has become a highly contentious issue between advocates, who argue the drilling technique can generate a massive boom in energy, jobs and tax revenue, and opponents, who argue fracking is environmentally toxic and tends to be weakly regulated, detrimental to poor communities and furthers the nation’s dependence on unsustainable energy sources.

Following the rare and devastating northeastern flooding that resulted from the one-two punch of tropical storms Irene and Lee, many politicians, environmental groups and residents are now concerned that another major flood could cause fracking chemicals to be released into storm waters.

Under current fracking rules, drilling isn’t allowed within 100 feet of a flood plane, but in light of recent events, FEMA is currently looking into redrawing the flood plane maps, said Martens. But Martens noted how FEMA is currently plagued by a lack of fiscal resources — a battle over those resources is currently playing out in Congress.

On the Capital Report, Martens said, “We’re obviously going to be looking at whether flood plains ought to be remapped,” but he then went on to say “we are not looking specifically at the issue of flooding and hydrofracking in New York.”

Buried treasure. The DEC report explores the prospective economic benefits of fracking within the state in detail, reported the Wall Street Journal. The report says that fracking could bring 29,000 new jobs to the state, and generate anywhere from $621 million to $2.5 billion. Natural Gas and Energy companies say that drilling is safe in any location, and criticize the DEC report for advise against drilling in State Parks, as well as the following proposed regulatory measures.

  • Full disclosure of all chemicals used in the drilling process.
  • Monitoring of wastewater.
  • In-depth plans for transporting waste and gas.
  • Preemptive limits to noise and aesthetic disruption caused by drilling sites.

Aqueducts and inadequacy. There are many reasons opponents take issue with fracking, but Eric Goldstein, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s New York chapter, wrote a blog post on Tuesday which addressing his initial concerns with the DEC report itself, which he said lacks significant regulatory suggestions and environmental data. Goldstein said the NRDC will be scrutinizing the report int he coming months, but he major qualms on first-read were:

  • The report doesn’t address the risk of fracking in the flood-plains. Given the intense flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene in many areas where fracking would likely occur, natural gas drilling in these areas could easily result in environmental disaster.
  • The report does not propose any measures to protect rural communities from the risks of rapid industrialization.
  • Fracking would generate tens of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater, but the state does not have any water treatment plants equipped to handle the content or volume of the wastewater.
  • While the report advises protections against drilling int he unfiltered watersheds for New York City and Syracuse, it barely provides protections for the aqueducts and tunnels that transport water to drinking-water reservoirs. Goldstein says this is an “unreasonable risk” from a public health and emergency preparedness position.

As Goldstein bluntly voiced, “Hold onto your hats, folks.  The forthcoming public review process is going to be a wild and bumpy ride.”

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