Wednesday, March 18, 2009
CB2 Public Hearing re Gas Drilling
Premise 1: It's got to come from somewhere!
So I went to the hearing to hear what I could hear,
And what did I hear? I heard the herd!
No, not really, I'm just playing with words again, hard to stop after the ogma ogma ogma fun.
But I was going to try to be serious for a little while here. I did go, I listened for 3 hours, I walked out undecided but in possession of a lot more information. It was pretty interesting. I'm not going to try to give a blow-by-blow, but I am going to try to jot down some impressions while they're still fresh.
I'll start with my biggest criticism of the evening:
That wasn't a hearing. That was a freakin' pep rally.
Every public hearing I've ever been to, you hear both sides of the issue. Tonight's meeting was the choir was preaching to the choir. I was the only non-chorister person in the audience. I had suspected that but it was confirmed while Siobhan Williams, the legislative policy analyst who was there representing Speaker Christine Quinn's office, was making her brief presentation. Now she was in an interesting position because Quinn has not taken an official public position on the issue, although she's been supportive of the anti-driller. Somebody put her on the spot about that, and suddenly somebody with a mike was saying "Hey, how about everyone who want Speaker Quinn to come out with a statement against drilling in the watershed say so with a show of hands" - and EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE ROOM EXCEPT ME RAISED THEIR HAND. That was sort of weird.
Got some interesting background on NYC Water. There were a few things I did clap for - one was City Council Environmental Protection Committee Chair James Gennaro's beginning his speech by looking at the Fiji Water bottle in his hand & saying "You know, I shouldn't be drinking bottled water. Somebody handed this to me." I thought that was pretty sharp of him to recognize the irony. Anyways, Mr. Gennaro talked about how hard NYC worked to win "Filtration Avoidance Status" back in the 70's. There are very few cities in the country that have that status - I think he said 4 - and the others are all drawing their water from unpopulated, undeveloped areas. NYC's watershed is populated; there are towns, and farms, and industry & highways & all that stuff. The EPA & a panel of water-quality experts were initially reluctant, but rules and regulations were upgraded, buffer lands established, various inspection requirements put in place & finally, with the cooperation of city, state, Federal Government & towns in the watershed, the city's request was granted.
Mr. Gennaro said that failure to win that status back then would've cost the city 6 to 8 billion dollars. Who knows what it would cost now?
I didn't come away with the idea that the Paterson bill from last summer suddenly legalized anything that was illegal before. Actually it sounds like what really opened things up to some possibly questionable drilling practices was the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which made it easier to use public land to energy production and included a loophole a mile wide for hydraulic fracture drilling - that's a fact, here's wording from the act's official summary:
"Provisions are also included to increase access to federal lands by energy projects — such as drilling activities, electric transmission lines, and gas pipelines. In addition, the law prevents the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating hydraulic fracturing to protect drinking water sources." That exemption, coupled with runaway fuel prices, led to a whole lot of drilling, as described in that Times article I posted yesterday. The Paterson bill sounds like it was basically just an effort to milk that by allowing a little more density.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking", seems to be the specific bad guy here - other forms of drilling were mentioned, and most of the people in the room want a complete ban on drilling in the watershed - but hydraulic fracturing sounds like it's the one that would really threaten the water supply if it were used in the NY watershed.
The first commercial use of hydrofracking was in 1949. The pioneering company?
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office has put together a report on the subject. That includes some 20 summaries of articles about cases where things had gone horribly wrong with drinking water in areas where hydrofracking was being done. I suspect that having your toilet erupt isn't nearly as funny as it sounds.
All that being said -
I still can't believe the threat is as imminent as it's being made out to be.
2 main reasons:
1. The NYC watershed only covers about 9% of the Marcellus Shale formation that was the focus of all the interest. If I had a gas company and I were looking to drill, guess which area would be the LAST area I'd even dream about drilling? That would be the NYC Watershed. I just can't imagine that anyone would voluntarily drill somewhere where if something goes wrong, you're not going to just end up trucking drinking water to the residents of the poor little hamlet whose wells have turned to gobs o' goo...you're going to have every resident (including & especially every resident lawyer) of one of the biggest cities in the world after your hide. Might as well just tie yourself between two teams of horses facing opposite directions & then set off a few firecrackers. It'll be a lot more pleasant.
2. As was outlined in that Times article which I linked to, the economic picture that was driving all the drilling madness has totally changed. That was one very odd thing about the hearing - it didn't seem like any of the speakers had taken that into account. It's like the figures they were using were all based on forecasts done in June 2008. And they were stating those figures like they were hard, cold facts. As it is, just like I'd said in my earlier post, the silver lining here is that I'd bet that new drilling in the Marcellus is going to come to a screeching halt for a while, just like new development on the waterfront. In the meantime, H.R. 7231 is likely to resurface in Congress this year. That's a bill to put hydraulic fracture drilling back under EPA regulation.
If you're worried about this stuff, the absolute best thing to do right now might just be to write to your representative asking them to support H.R. 7231. There's time now.
Gotta wrap this up now, it's getting late.
On the whole, it was an informative & interesting evening.
There were a couple of moments where I felt like I'd sort of fallen through the looking-glass into extrema-eco-lefty-land...
One was when when Deborah Goldberg, Managing Attorney for Earth Justice's NE office, was talking about one possible strategy they've been looking at, which would be pushing to get control of regulation of mineral use away from Albany and into the hands of local authorities. this was in response to a question about who the "decider" is & who people can go to if Paterson doesn't want to listen - the answer is well, really Paterson's it, then she touched on the idea of letting local authorities make their own regs. The idea was that the regs become such a patchwork that the gas companies run screaming from NY - but what made me think "Did she just say what I thought she said?" was when she mentioned one thing she thought was a drawback to this plan:
"Of course, you run the risk of having areas that actually want (drilling)".
The other was actually what inspired the picture for this post, and the "Premise No. 1" caption.
Someone asked a question about why the groups that had speakers there tonight were all so focused on NYC & the NYC watershed. They felt like the efforts needed to be more inclusive to get any real traction. For some of the participants, that was an easy question - the elected officials have to answer to their constituencies. The Riverkeeper guy was sort of able to take the same track - he works for Riverkeeper, and Riverkeeper's mission is to protect the Hudson & surrounding watershed. But then he started into a very sensible additional bit about practicality & picking your battles.
As an example, he asked:
"Should we ban natural gas drilling across the entire country?"
A truly shocking number of people in the crowd shouted:
Even he looked a bit taken aback.
I really wonder how many of those people went home tonight & turned on their stoves to cook dinner.
I wonder if they even think about where that gas comes from. It's got to come from somewhere.
It's sort of like a person who says all people should become vegetarians, then goes home & has hot dogs for dinner.
Anyways, pardon the massive wandering off into Serious Stuff. We now return you to your regularly scheduled frivolity.