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Fracking again in New York

By Michael Clark - 01 Jul 2011 15:28:0 GMT
Fracking again in New York

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is set to release a massive report proposing recommendations for allowing hydraulic fracturing and lifting the moratorium on the practice. DEC released late yesterday details on the forthcoming report. In a signficant change, the practice, widely known as hydrofracking, will be banned in the watersheds that serve as water supply for New York City and Syracuse.

It would also be banned on public lands and on lands overlying primary aquifers, but allowed on private lands. A public comment period will follow the release of the report today, and DEC will eventually write regulations based on the finalized recommendations.

Industry groups seemed pleased while some see the potential lifting of the moratorium as a loss for opponents of hydrofracking. The Wall Street Journal points out that that battle over the practice seems to follow geographic lines, with most opponents in New York City and most proponents in the upstate areas, where the drilling would occur. The former see the practice as a threat to their drinking water, while the former see it as an economic boon.

Outlawing the practice in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and in areas that qualify as primary aquifers is a step in the right direction. But there is, of course, the risk that water supplies for rural communities may be at risk of contamination. And the other looming question is the disposal of what is called produced water, an issue yesterday's press release does not include.

Though drilling is not allowed in critical drinking water areas, it is unclear how produced water, which may contain toxic contaminants, will be regulated and how it could impact downstream watersheds that serve as drinking water supply sources.

In Pennsylvania, where hydrofracking has been going full bore since 2008, environmental officials were forced to crack down on the practice of treating produced water at existing wastewater treatment facilities, which typically discharge to rivers that downstream communities use as drinking water, after researchers discovered adverse impacts to waterways.

Officials claim that the volume of wastewater going to these facilities has virtually stopped. Drillers claim they have begun reusing almost all of their produced water or shipping it to Ohio for disposal in existing injection wells. Either way, it seems this policy has simply passed the problem elsewhere. Regulating wastewater disposal will be equally as critical as regulating the location of the drilling itself.

It is likely that the ban on hydrofracking in New York will be lifted. An outright ban was probably never really in the cards. The practice can be an economic boon, and help to usher in an energy portfolio that is comprised less of foreign oil. The boon will probably not be as big as everyone suggests, however, because of regulations, water availability, wastewater disposal capacity, and local resistance.

Additionally, even if the ban is lifted, there still exists much regulatory uncertainty. The EPA is undertaking a study to determine if the existing hydrofracking exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act should be lifted. If it is, hydrofracking fluid, which contains water, sand, and potentially toxic chemicals, may be outlawed.

The battle over DEC's proposals released today will be intense over the next couple months. Opponents would do well to focus on supporting strict regulations rather than an outright ban. It is clear that a ban is not feasible but that the DEC is willing to move in the direction suggested by drilling opponents, as evidenced by the reversal of an earlier decision to allow hydrofracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and on public lands. If the focus is simply on a ban and the lifting of the moratorium is viewed as a loss, the environment and the economy may be put at risk.