February 14, 2010

Weak Drilling Regulation: A Big Frackin’ Problem

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The campus is oddly quiet over the issue of natural gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus Shale. The word “hydrofracking” has been splashed across The Sun’s headlines a couple times, a weakly attended rally was held outside Willard Straight at the end of last semester, and members of the Cornell community have reached out to educate Tompkins County landowners; however, the initiatives of a few are slight in comparison to the gravity of what New York may face if New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation fails to meaningfully regulate hydrofracking.

In taking a step back to examine what weighs in the balance, let’s consider the list of some the benefits of allowing gas companies to use hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in our area:

• Increased supply of natural gas which burns less CO2 than coal

• Less U.S. dependence on foreign oil

• Profit for gas companies, their investors, and landowners of drilling sites

However before these benefits are celebrated, consider the proposed regulations on drilling companies and what they fail to include:

• Regulation on how the millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater will be disposed of

• A mandate that companies must publically disclose the toxins added to the immense amounts of water needed to fracture the rock bed

• A way to hold companies accountable

A fundamental flaw in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan to insure the health and safety of New York residents is that it lacks the ability to properly oversee the drilling. Its proposed regulations are also based on the assumption that the existing policies from the 1992 Generic Environmental Impact Statement are adequate.

According to a study done by ProPublica, the DEC’s staff for enforcing drilling regulations consisted of 19 people for 13,684 wells in 2008. Permitting hydraulic fracturing would dramatically increase the number of wells — considering around 40 percent of Tompkins County land is already leased — however there is no plan to increase state enforcement personnel.

The environmental organization Toxics Targeting has further challenged the DEC’s proposed regulations, a supplement to the 1992 policies, by enumerating existing failures. They uncovered oil and gas hazards that had gone uncleaned for decades and a variety of gas problems never disclosed to the DEC — suggesting that the basis on which the regulations for hydraulic fracturing is founded on is flawed.

Also, while drilling supposedly causes money to flow into the state, the DEC’s proposal puts the monetary burden of regulation and environmental damage on the local population. For example, according to the proposed DEC regulations, responsibility for investigating an accident falls on local health departments if it occurs on a well site that has been operating for more than a year.

Oversight for natural gas drilling in New York is in the hands of Governor David Paterson and the DEC’s proposed regulations — local governments hold no power over the gas companies that drill in their area. Thus, should hydraulic fracturing be allowed under the proposed regulatory measures, gas companies would legally be able to dump millions of gallons of wastewater into local plants, which may lack the capacity to treat all the solvents in the fluid and would not have to publicly disclose what chemicals they have used.

In addition to considering the immense trucking needed to haul the water to and from the well site and protecting New York’s gorgeous natural landscape, consider that under such loose regulations residents would be dependent on the good character of gas companies, geared to seek profit rather than societal well-being.

Currently a movement is underway. It declares these regulations inadequate in protecting the health and safety of New York residents, and calls upon the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct further research into the ecological impacts of drilling.

Should you agree that the DEC’s draft of drilling regulations should be revoked and rewritten, consider signing a coalition letter to Paterson that can be found at toxicstaretting.com. It will take an increased dedication to activism to give these currently toothless regulatory proposals some bite.

Michelle Winglee is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and former Sun news writer. She may be reached at mwinglee@gmail.com Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Michelle Winglee