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Getting Gas Drilling Right

A version of this editorial appeared in print on December 12, 2011, on page A22 of the New York edition

After several crowded and often raucous hearings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to give the public until Jan. 11 to comment on 2,000 pages of environmental analysis and proposed regulations designed to govern natural gas drilling in deep shale formations in New York State. The extension makes sense. The drilling decision is a momentous one, for the environment and the economy, and it is vitally important to get it right.

The issue is not the fuel. There is little doubt in our minds that natural gas, which is cheap, plentiful and cleaner than coal, could help greatly with the country’s energy and climate problems.

The question is whether it can be safely extracted by a technique called hydraulic fracturing, which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals deep into rock formations to dislodge the gas. Done carelessly, the technique poses threats to water quality, local landscapes and the atmosphere that other states, including Pennsylvania, have failed to address adequately.

That’s where the rules from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation come in. They must establish detailed safeguards for hydraulic fracturing and ensure regulatory oversight. The proposed rules have been months in the making but still need to be improved to better protect the environment and public health. Here are several concerns:

URBAN WATER SUPPLIES The rules rightly forbid drilling inside the two major unfiltered watersheds serving New York City and Syracuse. But New York City officials warn that hydrofracturing outside the watershed boundaries could set off tiny subsurface shocks, cracking the aging tunnels that bring water to the city and allowing water to leak out of the tunnels and gas to seep in. The proposed rules would limit drilling within 1,000 feet of the tunnels; some experts believe that a setback of several miles will be necessary.

HAZARDOUS WASTEWATER A federal panel found recently that the biggest risks arise from “flowback” — the huge volumes of water laced with naturally occurring toxic pollutants that drilling brings to the surface along with the natural gas. In Western states, these and other wastes are sometimes safely stored underground, but this may not be possible in New York’s geological formations. Sewage treatment plants are not equipped to handle these wastes, open pits are out of the question, and surface storage — even in airtight steel tanks — may be no more than a temporary solution. State officials concede that they don’t have an answer, but until they do, not a single well should be drilled.

OVERSIGHT When fully operational in a decade, the industry could be drilling hundreds of wells a year. Two questions arise, neither addressed in the proposed regulations: First, who’s going to police all this activity? The minerals division of the Department of Environmental Conservation has fewer than 20 employees. Joe Martens, the commissioner, says he wants 140 more, but even that doesn’t sound like enough. Second, who’s going to pay for the regulatory machinery? The obvious answer is the industry, which is growing rapidly and can easily afford permit fees or a volumetric tax on the gas or both. The state needs to ensure an adequate financing stream dedicated to monitoring and enforcement.

There are other issues that need meticulous examination. One is the danger of underground leaks of chemicals or methane gas. The Environmental Protection Agency reported on Thursday that wells in a remote valley in Wyoming may have been contaminated this way. Another issue is above-ground gas leaks that would add to global warming (methane is a potent greenhouse gas). Still another is what industry should be required to do to restore the landscape to its original condition after wells go dry.

There is no reason to hurry the rule-making or the drilling. The only way New York can safely move ahead with hydrofracturing is by designing and executing a tough regulatory program that could also serve as a model for the rest of the nation.


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