Published: New York Times, May 31, 2011
A top New York State official filed a lawsuit against the federal government on Tuesday to force an assessment of the environmental risks posed by drilling for natural gas in the Delaware River Basin, arguing that a regulatory commission should not issue final rules governing the drilling until a study is completed.
The suit, filed in United States District Court in Brooklyn by Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, involves the Delaware River Basin Commission, a regional regulatory agency. Made up of the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers, it is preparing to issue regulations intended to bring some uniformity to the rules applied to a controversial type of gas extraction that combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
The method involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground under high pressure to free pockets of gas from dense rock formations. The agency estimates that there could one day be more than 10,000 wells in the Delaware River Basin, a 13,500-square-mile expanse that includes a portion of the New York City watershed and reaches into parts of Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Schoharie, Green, Ulster, Orange and Sullivan Counties.
Mr. Schneiderman argued that the agency should not be drafting its own rules without the benefit of a comprehensive environmental impact study like the one that New York is conducting before hydrofracking is allowed in the state. The lawsuit takes the Army Corps and other federal agencies to task for resisting such a study, saying it is required by federal law.
“Before any decisions on drilling are made, it is our responsibility to follow the facts and understand the public health and safety effects posed by potential natural gas development,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a statement.
The Army Corps of Engineers had no comment on the suit, but in a recent letter to Mr. Schneiderman, Brig. Gen. Peter A. DeLuca of the Army Corps argued that the federal law requiring an environmental study does not apply to the commission because the regional body is not a federal agency. He also noted that other comprehensive studies were under way, including one by the Environmental Protection Agency, to determine the possible impact of hydrofracking on water quality.
Hydrofracking is a hot-button issue in a state that gets much of its drinking water from the very area sought for exploration by natural gas companies. On Friday, officials in the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed the State Department of Environmental Conservation to expand its review of hydrofracking to include an inspection of a recent natural gas well spill in Bradford County, Pa., that discharged thousands of gallons of water containing hydrofracking materials into a nearby creek.
(The Department of Environmental Conservation is scheduled to issue its revised draft rules for new drilling on July 1. A period for public comment will follow.)
Officials with the Delaware River Basin Commission have emphasized that any new regulations it issues would actually supplement what states are already doing to ensure that natural gas extraction is done safely. The commission’s focus is on drilling activities like wastewater disposal that member states do not address with the same authority, they add. Environmental groups welcomed the lawsuit, saying that more study is required to ensure regulatory consistency.