One New York town supervisor cited the benefits of sorely needed jobs and revenue in gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation, but only if the state keeps a close tabs on oil and gas industry practices.
Tuscarora Town Supervisor Robert Nichols touched on both sides of the debate as New York opened its first public hearing Wednesday on draft rules governing the high-volume hydraulic fracturing process used to blast natural gas wells into production. It was the first of eight three-hour hearings over four days on proposed gas drilling rules.
"Does (Department of Environmental Conservation) have enough inspectors to make sure the casing and cement is put in the ground properly so we can all drink our water when this is done?" asked Nichols, who is also a Steuben County legislator.
"This could be a real plus for our community. I have faith in DEC that you folks will do the right thing _ if you have the manpower to protect our resources."
The initial hearing drew a vocal mix of elected officials, environmentalists, struggling farmers and land owners eager to make money from their gas leases, as well as energy industry representatives, who lined up to be heard in three-minute segments. About 150 of more than 850 in attendance signed up to comment, but only 64 got a chance at the microphone. An evening session was also planned.
The state has refused to issue permits for drilling in the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation since 2008, when it began reviewing the process called hydrofracking, or fracking, used to free natural gas from dense shale rock a mile underground.
Opponents fear fracking will contaminate water supplies with either leaked methane or chemicals added to the millions of gallons of fracking water used to free natural gas from dense shale rock a mile underground.
Opponents said the industry would clash with the lifeblood wine industry and destroy the tranquility of the picturesque, agricultural Finger Lakes, where the hearings opened in the village of Dansville.
The wine industry and related tourism "would not be able to co-exist with fracking," said Jane Russell, the tentative winner of the race for supervisor in Pulteney, a small town of vintners and alpaca and dairy farmers.
Others foresaw roads choked by heavy trucks, declining property values, water supplies potentially contaminated by leaked methane or chemicals added to fracking water and ill-equipped water processing plants unable to handle the byproduct wastewater.
Marilyn Catherine of Rochester said moving forward with drilling without a detailed health analysis would be "involving New Yorkers in a biological experiment to which they have not given their consent."
Outnumbered supporters said the drilling and fracking that has gone on for years in other states and countries proves its safety and economic benefits. The vast formation, the largest natural gas field in the country, promises to deliver relatively cheaper natural gas to close customers in the energy-hungry Northeast and create hundreds of well-paying jobs in an economically depressed region.
"Our communities and our state, we are running on fumes and we are sitting on a full tank, one of the biggest in the world," said resident Jason Ballard of Linwood.
Tom Shepstone, of EnergyInDepth, a public outreach arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said on the way into the hearing that fracking has been proven safe and is desperately needed in the Southern Tier.
"School enrollment is down, there's no growth, there's no construction activity, agricultural levels are lower now than in 1978," Shepstone said, "what else is there?"
Supporters cautioned DEC to avoid unnecessarily restrictive regulations that would send energy companies to competing states. Across the border in Pennsylvania, gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale has been going strong since 2008. The shale deposit also extends under parts of West Virginia, where drilling is also under way, and Ohio, where leases are being sold.
New York's proposed guidelines run 1,537 pages.
"Let's not make it so difficult for the gas companies that they will lose interest in us and move on to other states," said Ellen Zver of Jasper. "It could be the savior of our area and New York state, but we need this to happen now."
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens has said fracking is the most important environmental issue in New York and that permits won't be issued until his agency has the resources in place to enforce rules for doing it safely. A state advisory panel is working to determine how much it will cost for state and local governments to oversee development of thousands of wells, and how that money can be raised.
The hearings move to Binghamton on Thursday and to Loch Sheldrake and New York City at the end of the month.
Public comments are open until Dec. 12. DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the final rules would be released next year and that permit applications would be taken then and reviewed.