In this March 5, 2010 photo the west branch of the Lackawaxen River in Pleasant Mount, Pa., is shown. Stone Energy Corp. wants to withdraw water from the creek as part of its plan to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation in the Delaware River watershed.
New York state announced Friday that new regulations for natural gas drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds will create a preventive hurdle for drilling there, defusing concerns about possible drinking-water contamination.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis said the watersheds will be removed from drilling regulations being developed for other parts of the Marcellus Shale region in southern New York. Instead, each gas well would require an individual environmental impact statement, which entails a long, costly and complicated process.
The drafting of new drilling regulations went underway amid concerns about gas exploration in the Marcellus Shale rock formation using a process that involves injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand into each well to release trapped natural gas.
New York City officials had argued that the city would be forced to spend $10 billion on a water-filtration plant if gas exploration polluted its reservoirs, and some had called on state regulators to ban drilling there, citing fears of polluting drinking water supplies for more than 9 million people. Grannis said that would pose legal issues because 80 percent of the land is privately owned.
The DEC and the state Health Department will work with Syracuse, New York City and communities within the watersheds to develop special restrictions for drilling companies seeking permits in the watersheds.
Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, called the watershed regulations excessive and unnecessary.
"While the DEC's announcement does not constitute a drilling ban, the result will be the same," Gill said. "It will do irreversible fiscal harm to the local communities that would benefit from tax revenues through drilling, and it will harm landowners who want nothing more than to safely develop their land in a way that's in the best interest of their families and future generations."
Environmental advocates had a mixed reaction to Friday's announcement.
"Even if the practical effect is to stop development of the Marcellus Shale in these limited areas, we need to make sure there are across-the-board standards that will protect all New Yorkers from the health threats posed by industrial gas drilling," said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for Earthjustice.
Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper, called it "a partial victory."
"We still have a lot more work to do to make sure the DEC issues the strictest possible regulations for drilling in the rest of upstate New York," Matthiessen said.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said nothing short of an outright ban on drilling in the city's watershed is acceptable.
There are currently 58 pending permit applications in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, which also spans into Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. But Grannis said none of those applications are in the watersheds. Drilling has been on hold while new regulations are being developed. They are expected to be finished this fall.