Lifton Testimony to DEC Regarding dSGEIS

Summarized at TCCOG Public Hearing November 19, 2009
November 30, 2009
I want to thank Commissioner Grannis for scheduling numerous public hearings, as well as the informational sessions, and accepting into DEC’s official record the comments given at Ithaca’s hearing.

While I am not a scientist, I have read and listened to a great deal of scientific analysis about gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Based on that reading and discussion, I want to offer a few comments on my concerns.

As I said in the hearing in Albany on October 15th, the overarching issue is one of precaution in terms of possible damage done to our environment from industrial-scale gas drilling in our region. I have been, for several years, a co-sponsor of Assemblyman Sweeney’s bill A3420, which calls for New York to take precautionary measures to protect public health and the environment where threats of harm to human health or the environment exist, even if there is a lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect. It recognizes that the world’s environment is at a tipping point in terms of the damage we have done to our land, our water and our air, and that we MUST change our thinking, from short-term, that is: What meets our wants this year and what is good for the corporate bottom-line this quarter? – to a much longer view that puts the health of the environment first, the environment on which we all depend on for life.

While some argue that natural gas is cleaner and is therefore a transitional fuel as we move to greener renewables, we must remember, it is still a fossil fuel. It would be much preferable if we invested our public and private resources in moving more quickly to wind, solar, geothermal, bio-mass, etc. Dr. Rajendra K. (RK) Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), synthesizing all the work done by the world’s foremost climate scientists, said recently that we have until 2015 to cap CO2 emissions, a mere six years away, and then we must rapidly decline our production of CO2, or global warming will likely spin out of control. Perhaps natural gas would have been a good transitional fuel to switch to twenty or thirty years ago, but I would question the wisdom of that thinking today, when we’re just a few years from the brink of global warming catastrophe. Will this transitional fuel really slow global warming and help us avoid climactic catastrophe? As the Precautionary Principle would dictate, I would like to see valid scientific studies on that claim, including a quantified full carbon footprint that includes all stages of large scale natural gas exploration, extraction and remediation. All levels of government, especially in this country that accounts for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, must move quickly to even more green alternatives, and our tax dollars should be going to that investment, not spent monitoring the production of more fossil fuel.

The next biggest objection is the issue of produced water, flowback. As far as I can see, we really have no acceptable plan for treatment and recycling of the dangerously polluted water, with a large quantity of suspended solids. Until we can point to specific facilities, either in this state or another nearby state, with the technology and capacity to handle large volumes of flowback, we should not even consider issuing permits. And, I don’t see how we can say we are going “green” if we allow countless thousands of large trucks to move water to another state. Pushing this huge problem off on a neighboring state seems unconscionable. While I and others have been raising the issue of radioactivity in the flowback for over a year, we are now seeing new, more troubling analysis on the degree of radioactivity we may have in New York. That new information cannot be ignored or tossed aside as insignificant.

As a corollary to that issue, we have spent the last three years dealing with the issue of a punishing number of large trucks on our Upstate roads, and gas-drilling trucks will only add to it, pushing us to an intolerable level on the issue of trucks alone. We were very glad in 2008 when the Governor responded to our pleas for help and directed the DOT to do something about the problem. We are just in the process of finalizing new trucking regulations, with the comment period ending December 15th. They are intended to re-direct many 18-wheel trucks off the two-lane state highways that go through our beautiful and historic cities, towns and villages, onto the four-lane highways that are better designed for such heavy traffic, with no homes or commercial buildings ten feet away. As we gain some relief there, we face being inundated yet again with thousands more large trucks that will undoubtedly fall outside the regulations, as they would have to travel to and from the many well sites throughout the region. An important related point is that we know that a significant portion of our older bridges are in poor shape. How will they tolerate yet more heavy truck traffic from gas drilling and who will pay the cost for that damage? It begs the questions: Are the DEC and DOT engaging in inter-agency discussions, planning and coordinating on the matter of heavy trucks and the possible siting of well pads? That clearly would be needed if drilling goes forward.

I agree with the preponderance of scientific opinion that the state should be looking at all potential cumulative impacts of gas drilling throughout the Marcellus Shale, including large water withdrawals, noise, greenhouse gas emissions, road damage due to truck traffic, etc. It seems clear to me, even as a non-scientist, that in the environment, one plus one does not always equal two. Cumulative effects are a well-known scientific phenomenon, yet there is almost no acknowledgement of that in the SGEIS, nor the earlier 1992 GEIS, that serves as the regulatory foundation for oil and gas drilling. In fact, the draft SGEIS downplays the immensity of this activity, comparing it to nothing more than a construction site, with “temporary” noise disturbances, etc. In my opinion, 3-years of around-the-clock horrific noise from non-stop traffic and loud machinery are neither temporary nor a mere “disturbance”. Noise exposure is a serious health risk that can cause both physiological and psychological harm, including speech interference, trouble with concentration and thought processes, stress, sleep disturbance, fatigue, aggression, reduced immune response and heart disease, to name a few. Prolonged exposure can lead to loss of hearing. No one, especially children, should be victimized by such an assault on their well-being. Many residents choose to live in Upstate New York because of the relative quiet and solitude of rural living and that way of life should not be compromised by large-scale drilling activity.

The opinion was offered at the October 15th hearing in Albany that people in Manhattan well tolerate the noise of subway construction, but I would argue that the mostly tall stone and brick buildings in the City are well-insulated against noise, unlike homes in this region. A resident in my district, who lives near a recently-drilled vertical exploratory well, noted that, “While the noise generated from just that one well isn’t exceptionally loud, it’s still 24/7 and very repetitive.” It’s not difficult to conclude that drilling in the Marcellus, with its multi-well pads, hydrofracking, high-powered generators and large numbers of trucks transporting chemicals, water and equipment in and out of the well site, will result in a substantial increase in noise levels and cause further disturbances and stress to families living near those sites. And the noise could well go on for three years! That will drive people out of their homes. Don’t those people have rights too?

The DEC makes no attempt at putting in perspective just how much water, cumulatively, will be taken from our rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, groundwater and aquifers. Using 3-5 million gallons to frack each well, just 4 or 5 wells could end up withdrawing enough water to supply 97 families for one year! With plans to drill thousands of wells a year, the overall impact of that magnitude of water depletion should be extensively studied.

Tourism, higher ed and agriculture are the foundation of our regional economy. For many years in Albany we’ve been talking about Higher Ed as a growth component of our new economy – the knowledge economy and the spin-off high-tech that comes with it. We have invested considerable money there and are seeing results. We’re happy that it’s a clean economy -- no smokestacks, we say. And, of course, the beautiful Finger Lakes, and the Wine Country, are critical and growing sectors of our economy. Needless to say, preserving the beauty, the “visual resources”, as the DEC terms them, of our region is paramount to the health of those thriving sectors. They are inextricably linked. It seems to me that we may well have fundamentally clashing visions and plans for our Upstate economy. Or, perhaps more accurately, it seems there is no real coherent vision for Upstate at all.

I found it interesting that the larger DEC document talks about the DEC’s mission of protecting the “visual resources” of the state. But you can’t protect certain areas properly while damaging others – it doesn’t work. Beauty cannot be dissected this way. It is all of a piece. You add a lot of ugly and, in the end, what you have is ugly. The beauty of our region will be destroyed.

The SGEIS is silent on an increased role for local government, even though at the hearing in Albany last year, the DEC stated that local governments would be involved in the decisions about siting well pads. Local governments should have a larger, defined role, as an involved agency, as has been suggested, to ensure awareness to sensitive areas and habitat. I also agree with the unhappiness of local governments over being handed the responsibility of testing private wells. We want the well testing if drilling happens, of course, but the drilling companies should be footing the bill, as the testing is clearly needed due to their activity. Local governments will also be strapped with the unfunded burden of monitoring and responding to accidents and spills.

And last, but far from least, it has been disturbing to see in the past couple of weeks, the videos of the serious accidents, spills and contamination that have virtually destroyed both the homes and land of a number of New York families. This, under the current regimen of the 1992 GEIS for smaller scale drilling that we have been assured many times is safe and well-regulated. And, yet, we have seen interviews with landowners who speak of the devastating damage to their homes and sometimes, livelihood. And, most troubling, is that they say the DEC has been unresponsive to their plight.

Now, I am well aware that under former Governor Pataki, the DEC was severely cut, losing over that twelve-year period, about 800 of their critical enforcement staff, with only 17 staff remaining in the Mineral Division that oversees this large industry and that the current DEC is consequently hamstrung in its current efforts to respond effectively. I think one of the most important issues before us is whether the Governor is prepared to re-vitalize the DEC with many more staff, particularly in this area, to carry out their duties with a sense of responsibility and thoroughness that has evidently been lacking over the past decade. And, second, whether the DEC is looking at its own data with an eye to remedying the weaknesses that this new evidence indicates is inherent in the 1992 GEIS on gas drilling, and making the necessary improvements. As the gas drilling companies and the state push for much larger-scale and intensive hydro-fracking, with considerably more risk and pollution potential than our current drilling regimen, the testimonies of these aggrieved citizens, in the end, are the most important testimonies, that the underlying plan for oversight of gas drilling in our state is fatally flawed and does not do enough to protect our water resources or the health of the people of this state.

I urge the DEC to acknowledge the inadequacies of that original GEIS, and undertake a stronger, more comprehensive process that ensures what’s most valuable to our state – our rural way of life, our plentiful and precious water, beautiful landscapes, and abundant wildlife habitat and ecosystems – is left unscathed, able to sustain New Yorkers long after the last well is drilled and the last royalty is paid out.