It’s meant to be encouraging to say that every night brings a new dawn. But today, officials with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) probably wished they could stay in bed, safely hidden by darkness. Instead, as the public comment period on the guidelines for developing natural gas from Marcellus and Utica shale ended, they awoke to confront an astounding number of letters (early estimate: 40,000) and reams of supporting documentation—all awaiting their review and analysis.
The process to develop the guidelines (formally called the draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement, or dSGEIS) and allow for public comment is required by state law and has been underway since 2008. It certainly isn’t easy to conduct a comprehensive assessment of a complex issue and update regulations to address modern-day, industrial gas development of a type and on a scale that New York has never seen before. And the DEC gave it a decent try, issuing a 1000+ page document covering topics from water to wildlife and traffic to toxics.
Yet given how much is at stake, the dSGEIS and accompanying proposed regulations just don't cut it. Earthworks detailed several critical flaws in our comments, and with our partners in the New York Water Rangers coalition, have demanded that they be fixed. At the same time, in-depth technical comments by a group of experts persuaded leading environmental organizations that the dSGEIS is too deficient for the state to move forward with drilling.
With no consideration of cumulative impacts, analysis of economic costs, plans to dispose of hazardous waste or prohibit the use of carcinogenic chemicals, insufficient setbacks from buildings and water resources, and more, the dSGEIS and draft regulations certainly aren't what so many had hoped and waited for.
Earthworks and our partners were particularly astounded that the DEC didn’t analyze health impacts (and barely referenced health in the document), despite growing concern over the problems (respiratory distress, bloody noses, skin rashes, constant headaches, and more) faced by people (and animals) living in America’s gas patches. The DEC ignored a request from hundreds of health professionals to do so, as well as increasing evidence nationwide that such health impacts are real and are happening now—and serve as tragic and harsh examples of what could happen in New York if the state doesn’t sufficiently protect communities and air and water quality.
It remains to be seen whether Governor Cuomo and the DEC will heed such criticism and work to fill the gaping holes in the dSGEIS and regulations—a choice that would match their repeated statements that science and safety, not emotion, will ultimately determine New York's decision. Or whether they will yield to industry pressure and spin the dSGEIS so they can proceed with issuing drilling permits, perhaps in 2012.
If they take the latter path, New York could end up like every other oil and gas state that’s jumped onto the shale gas train as it rushes down the tracks: trusting an untrustworthy industry that’s rarely held accountable for damage or required to prevent it, and willing to risk the health of its citizens and environment in the pursuit of a bit more dirty energy.
Long days (and likely some nights) lie ahead for DEC staff as they sift through comments. Let’s hope that when they emerge, the day will be bright—one in which New Yorkers have not only boldly spoken out, but have truly been heard.