EPA Questions New York Natural Gas Drilling Plans

New York State’s plan to allow hydraulic drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region has attracted scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to The New York Times, the agency has concerns that the drilling of natural gas from shale could affect public health and the environment. The EPA is urging the state to study the potential impact of the proposed drilling more extensively.

Natural gas is extracted from shale in a process known as hydraulic fracturing. Shale gas drilling involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable.

The major concern with shale gas drilling is the chemicals used in the process, and the wastewater it produces. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use. Some chemicals commonly used in this type of drilling include benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All of these chemicals have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.

According to The New York Times, the Marcellus Shale region in New York State encompasses New York City’s watershed in the Catskills, which supplies the city’s drinking water. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, which owns the lease to drill in the watershed, said it won’t drill there. But according to the Times, opponents of the plan fear that that stance could eventually be reversed.

In formal comments on the state’s newly proposed natural gas drilling regulations, the EPA said it is concerned about the regional water supply, air quality, wastewater treatment and radioactive materials that could be disturbed during drilling. The agency said the state should consider instituting “essential environmental protection measures” before it begins reviewing drilling permits.

The EPA’s stance have given opponents – including New York City officials – of hydraulic natural gas drilling in New York more ammunition. A spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg told the Times that the EPA’s comments indicate that the state’s environmental impact statement is “flawed and should be rescinded,” the Times said.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement saying to “appreciated” the EPA’s comments, but did not provide a detailed response to them.

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