Last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation decided to remove the issue of whether hydraulic gas fracking should be permitted in the New York City watershed. The city, with support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and many influential environmental organizations, has opposed drilling in the watershed, on the ground that the city's pristine unfiltered water supplies could be contaminated. The DEC decision invites companies to apply for drilling permits on a well-by-well basis, but that process is generally thought to be so cumbersome and costly, in effect the decision ends any immediate prospect of developing Marcellus gas north and northwest of New York City.
Pro Publica's Abrahm Lustgarten, who has done by far the most complete and impressive reporting on Marcellus gas development, admirably summarizes the implications of the decision: "The decision appears to protect the unfiltered water supply for nine million residents [of NYC]--as well as another unfiltered watershed near Syracuse, N.Y.--because energy companies will be required to undergo a separate and exhaustive review for each well they propose to drill and hydraulically fracture inside the area, a hurdle that may amount to a de facto ban. But it also removes a significant political and scientific obstacle to completing the two-year statewide review process, paving the way for drilling to proceed across much of the rest of state as soon as next spring." That's why, as Lustgarden goes on to explain, both the gas industry and environmental community are divided as to whether the DEC decision is a good or bad thing.
It's crucial to appreciate that the watershed area affected by the DEC ruling represents a small fraction of Marcellus gas that could be exploited. Most gas fracturing right now is being done in the southwest corner of the state (not the southeast), where there are 15,000 oil and gas wells right now, according to Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting. Hang, who used to run the toxics program at the New York Public Interest Research Group (more widely known as NYPIRG), has challenged the statewide environmental review, arguing that its scope is too restricted in terms of possible water contaminants. With the support of 10,000 people he got to sign a petition, Hang has called for the draft review to be withdrawn and the whole exercise to be reconceived and relaunched.
As long as watershed drilling was included in the environmental review process, which could drag out for many years, drilling in the watershed would not be able to proceed, as advocated by New York State's embattled governor. But now that the watershed has been removed from the review, if one company were to get permission to drill one well, then the door would be open to wide watershed drilling.