ALBANY, N.Y. – New York environmental officials have proposed a ban on drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and on all state-owned lands while permitting it on private land only under "rigorous and effective controls" codified into state law.
The process of hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," questioned by many environmental groups as degrading a region's water quality, extracts natural gas from shale by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground to create fissures in the rock and release the gas.
The Department of Environmental Conservation released sketchy details of major revisions to gas well permitting rules Thursday afternoon. The agency will give its recommendations contained in a 900-page document to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday, the same day an executive order prohibiting "hydrofracking" expires. The agency describes the document as a work in progress, with some details still to be worked out when research is completed.
The executive order was issued last year by then-Gov. David Paterson to allow the DEC more time to review the technology and develop new permitting rules. It was largely symbolic, as DEC officials have said repeatedly that no permits will be issued until the environmental review is finalized, a process that will continue for many more months. The review has put a de facto moratorium in place since it began in 2008.
"This report strikes the right balance between protecting our environment, watersheds and drinking water and promoting economic development," DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a prepared statement Thursday.
He said the areas that would be off-limits to drilling comprise about 15 percent of New York's part of the Marcellus Shale, a natural gas-rich rock formation that also underlies parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
The DEC's supplemental environmental study and revised draft recommendations will be subject to further public comment and revisions, a process likely to take months during which there will be no hydraulic fracturing.
Environmental groups, concerned about wastewater handling, potential spills befouling well water and waterways, and the cumulative impacts of thousands of gas wells on communities and ecosystems, have pushed for an extended moratorium on gas drilling in New York until a federal Environmental Protection Agency study is completed. That's not expected to be finished until at least 2012.
Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates praised the proposal to codify drilling regulations into state law, rather than mere permitting guidelines as currently written. "Regulations are enforceable. They spell out what must happen versus what should happen."
She was critical of a proposal to allow only a 60-day comment period starting in August, saying the public needs at least 180 days to pore over the enormous document.
"This is an opportunity for Cuomo to lead ... the charge nationwide on environmental issues surrounding shale gas development," Nadeau said.
A first draft of the study released in 2009 drew more than 13,000 comments. Among the major changes in the 2011 version are:
— High-volume hydraulic fracturing would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, which rely on surface reservoirs, including a buffer area around them.
— Drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries.
— Drilling would be prohibited on state land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas.
— Wastewater from wells and other drilling waste would be subject to monitoring similar to that used for medical waste.
— Drillers would be required to fully disclose all chemical additives used in the hydrofracking process.
— The agency will issue regulations to codify the recommendations into state law.
Currently, the state's permitting guidelines are spelled out in a state environmental impact document that allows drillers to avoid having to do a costly and time-consuming environmental impact study for each well. Environmental groups have pressed DEC to codify that document into state law, which provides a stronger regulatory framework.
An advisory panel made up of environmental, industry, and local government representatives would develop recommendations for implementing a system of oversight, monitoring and enforcement.
The draft report will be available on July 8 on the DEC website: www.dec.state.ny.us
"Our membership has always supported a tough, but fair, regulatory structure," Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said Thursday. "Allowing natural gas development to expand in New York will bolster the state's economy, provide thousands of new jobs in the near term and move our nation to greater energy independence."