OSI President Joe Martens spoke about the issue recently in a speech he made at Union College on the 40th anniversary of the creation of the DEC:
This morning you heard about drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Of all the daunting environmental challenges that DEC has faced during the past 40 years—criteria pollutants, hazardous waste, acid rain, even climate change—hydrofracking in the Marcellus may be the most difficult and daunting of them all.
As a nation, for a decade or more there has been a near-universal call for energy independence. If we could just wean ourselves from foreign oil, the argument goes, we would not be in the middle of two wars in the Middle East and sending billions of dollars to nations that don’t like us and, potentially, might do us harm.
And, as a state, we have been turning increasingly to natural gas to fire our power plants and heat our homes, because it’s less polluting than either coal or oil. I heat my home with natural gas (and wood!). Further, the state’s budget is in bad shape, unemployment is high and it just so happens that we have this huge rock formation under our feet that the gas industry has found a way to exploit and we even have a terrific new gas pipeline that could bring that gas to millions of nearby customers.
If nothing else, it seems to me, the Department should go slow. The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon operation in the Gulf clearly demonstrated that the unexpected can and will happen. It is also clear that the gas industry has not been as candid as it should have been with regards to the potential for problems. That suggests to me that our fate—and the need to separate objective science and environmental assessment from industry rhetoric—is in DEC’s hands, and the stakes could not be higher.
The gas industry, and even DEC, is quick to point out that gas drilling and fracking are not uncommon in New York State and that, so far, there have not been any significant problems. However, what is relatively new and different is the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling. And it’s the potential scale of drilling within the Marcellus Shale that is the real concern. If DEC decides to give the gas industry the green light, there could be thousands of new gas wells drilled in the Catskills and the southern tier. Given the quantity of the chemical-laced water that would be used in fracking (up to 8 million gallons per well), and the quantity of wastewater that would need to be treated, the number of roads that would need to be constructed, the number of trucks that would travel back and forth to drilling sites, and so on, the potential for problems multiplies dramatically with each well that is drilled.
New Yorkers created the Adirondack and Catskill state parks more than a hundred years ago to protect the water resources within them. New York City has committed hundreds of millions of dollars and has spent years protecting its watershed so that more than 9 million people can drink unfiltered water. I see no reason to rush to judgment on a decision as monumental as hydrofracking in the Marcellus.
Given the huge budget cuts that DEC has been forced to endure over the last couple of years and in light of the way the EPF’s commitments have been abandoned, I think there is a real question about DEC’s capacity to ensure that everything involved in the drilling process goes according to plan—from water withdrawals, to wastewater treatment, to pipeline construction. Clearly things did not go according to plan in the Gulf of Mexico.
The EPA has initiated a $1.9 million, two-year study of the impact of hydrofracking on health and the environment. What’s the downside of waiting for the results?
In the meantime, while DEC and others continue to explore this issue, wouldn’t it be great if we had a national energy policy that did more than pay lip service to energy conservation, efficiency and renewable sources? A few statistics for you to ponder:
The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 20 percent of its energy;
Eighty-four percent of the energy consumed in the United States comes from non-renewable sources—about 8.5 percent from nuclear power and 7 percent from renewable sources (2006 data);
Twenty-seven percent of the energy consumed in the United States is used in the transportation sector;
And, the most troubling statistic of all: per capita energy consumption in the United States has been relatively consistent from 1970 to today.
Although no energy source is perfect or without problems, shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to reduce energy consumption and do everything possible to increase the use of renewable resources before we make a major decision to exploit the Marcellus Shale and possibly damage, perhaps irreparably, the land, air and water resources that sustain life itself?
DEC has a heavy burden to bear here. For the past 40 years they have addressed a variety of environmental challenges with remarkable success. I’m hopeful, based on that 40-year record that they will continue to do so.