Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wading into the final SGEIS

active Marcellus well, Bradford County, PA

Nearly two weeks ago, the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released their Final SGEIS. Weighing in at 2,000 pages – about 20 pounds – this report lays the groundwork for what many believe will be a statewide ban on high volume hydraulic fracturing.

The SGEIS (Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) on high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing supplements the existing environmental impact statement for oil, gas, and solution mining that was adopted in 1992. The original scoping document called for an SGEIS to address just a handful of issues that hydraulic fracturing would present including increased water use for drilling and the impacts of multiple wells at a single well pad.

Over the years the document grew as its scope expanded. Now, with the completion of the SGEIS, there is just one more official step in meeting the State’s Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA): issue a formal “findings statement”. The “findings statement” is legally binding and cannot be issued any sooner than 10 days after the release of the Final SGEIS.

What’s different about the Final SGEIS, besides its heft, is the amount of effort that DEC put in to gather comments from medical and public health professionals, environmental organizations, municipalities, industry groups, and other members of the public; the review of the state Department of Health report; and a review drilling incidents in Pennsylvania. 

Here’s what you’ll find when you crack open its covers:

In chapter two, DEC notes that, if allowed, hydro-fracking would impact areas not previously exposed to oil and gas development. Furthermore, ancillary activities associated with drilling activities “would likely spread to those areas of the state where high-volume hydraulic fracturing is prohibited.”

Chapter six focuses on environmental impacts. DEC acknowledges uncertainty about the effectiveness of mitigation; the inability to quantify potential risks and impacts to environment and public health; and that some significant adverse impacts simply can’t be avoided.  They list potential impacts on water resources, ecosystems, wildlife, air resources, local communities, local economies, and transportation. DEC also brings up additional concerns about radioactive materials that are released during drilling and the potential for man-made earthquakes. When considering drilling’s impact on greenhouse gases, DEC cites New York’s long-term policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a reduction – not an increase – in reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite the weaknesses inherent in mitigating potential harm from intensive industrialized drilling, DEC outlines seven possible measures. These steps include prohibiting hydro-fracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, fracking within a 500-foot buffer area above primary aquifers, and mandatory disclosure of ingredients in fracking fluids. The DEC specifically points to the lack of evidence showing that high-volume hydro-fracking can be done “without posing unreasonable risk to human health.”

At the end of the process, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens must file a findings statement that describes how the state moves forward. The Final SGEIS provides three alternatives: no action, a phased-permitting approach, or allowing green and non-chemical fracking technologies and additives. Many think it’s likely that Martens will choose the “no action alternative”, especially given Cuomo’s statement in December calling for a ban. Under the “no action” alternative, DEC would deny applications for hydro-fracking that uses more than 300,000 gallons of water. High-volume hydraulic fracturing, which uses 5 – 7 million gallons of water per well, would not be allowed.

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