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Towns advised to make the call on gas drilling


NORWICH - An advisory committee on natural gas has for the second time refused to push forward a landowner group's request that Chenango County endorse the New York State Department of Conservation's ability to safely harvest natural gas.

The Central New York Landowners Coalition, which is comprised of large swaths of leased land in Chenango County, some of it already producing natural gas, offered up a resolution for the committee's adoption at the end of last month and again on Tuesday.

CNYLC's resolution affirms cooperation with the state's efforts to safely harvest natural gas and safeguard our vast number of invested landowners from unnecessary delays in permitting due to questioned local sentiment. The group claims to represent 400,000 acres and about 20 percent of the land in every township.

Riding the wave of pro-drilling sentiment coming out of Albany in the last few weeks, landowners and coalitions in favor of drilling are hoping to rush through local-level legislation to affirm cooperation with the DEC once it completes new permitting rules. DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens recently stated where there is less resistance and less opposition, and no local land-use in place, areas in the Southern Tier (where the Marcellus is deep enough to drill) would be permitted first. Governor Cuomo just last week expressed confidence in the DEC, stating that the nearly four-year review and revised 900-page draft comprehensive plan for safe development of natural gas will be ready to go shortly.

Fearing water contamination, opposition groups have called for a halt to the review and a complete ban on drilling in New York. Environmental regulators have been compiling and composing safe drilling procedures since 2008, when concerns were raised about high-volume hydraulic fracturing, the method which made it economically feasible to extract oil and gas from the Marcellus and other shales formation. Fracking, as it's called, unlocks trapped gas by injecting a well with millions of gallons of highly pressurized water mixed with a solution of soap, sand and chemicals that some worry has the potential to contaminate drinking water.

So far, no towns in Chenango County have banned drilling, though a petition to do so is on the table in Plymouth and councilmen in German are poised to adopt a law stipulating only non-frack solutions be employed when drilling. Most townships have been hosting speakers to learn more about fracking. The Town of Guilford is in the process of writing a comprehensive land use plan.

The composition of supervisors attending the Chenango County Natural Gas Advisory Committee's has fluctuated since being formed in 2009. Supervisors representing the towns of German, Smyrna, Preston, and Guilford sat around the table this week. Most agreed with opinion of German Supervisor Richard Schlag that the committee must stay neutral and that the DEC isn't capable of handling the activity.

All but Preston's Peter C. Flanagan, who is chair of the committee, opposed CNYLC's suggested resolution. Flanagan said he believed the DEC can permit the activity "with a high degree of safety." He did, however, also say he "couldn't support something I haven't seen."

"New York State has stifled gas drilling. They have not had the political courage to make the call. Now they are doing the Pontius Pilate thing. You want it, you do it. … We advise towns that they'd better make the call," he said.

Guilford Supervisor George Seneck said addressing the issue before his town board has been difficult.

"My board is reluctant to address the issue or even put it on the agenda. We are worried about pitting the hamlet (of Guilford) against the large landowners," he said. "Keeping up with leases here, figuring out who the large landowners are, whether they are in the coalition, whether they are really paying the majority of the taxes … It's been very difficult to research all of it."

CNYLC President Brian Conover suggested that the full board of supervisors might have a different sentiment about proceeding with the DEC's document. He said towns don't have the finances, time or expertise to develop their own 900-page study.

"Sadly, the governor has put this in the town's laps. We've worked in this county more than any other group to try to understand all of the complexities surrounding the process. Are you really concerned that this will ruin the county? We've already had it here without a whole lot of hoopla."

Conover compared the argument to deferring to New York State hunting and fishing regulations. "Let's hunt what we want or say no hunting here. The state would never go for that. What if we say let's give birth control in the feed to control the deer population? I don't think so."

"I agree that the pros have some misinformation as well as the antis … and that's we traditionally defer to a third party … the DEC," he said.

Saying the information presented at many town boards about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling is "mostly flawed" and orchestrated by individuals from outside the region, Chenango County Natural Gas Consultant Steven Palmatier said, "It is a legal activity. It's here. If there's an environmental Armageddon here, I don't see it." Chenango County Farm Bureau President Bradd Vickers also weighed in favor of the county expressing a pro-drilling stance.

Two other resolutions were adopted for consideration by the full board of supervisors, however. One opposes the forest focus and grassland designations contained within previous drafts of the DEC's plan. The other moves forward with officially adopting the a county road use agreement. The full board will consider both for adoption as early as next month, provided they make it through the standard committee process.

Well activity in Chenango County

1888 First drilled well in the Town of Norwich

1940s-2003 Minimal activity

2003 to present:

58 natural gas wells drilled

38 Active

20 In various stages (inactive, shut-in, temp. abandon, permanently abandoned/plugged)

6 are Utica wells

5 horizontal for high volume hydraulic fracturing.

20 Applications currently pending:

2 Herkimer (sandstone) formation

12 Marcellus Shale formation (4-vertical, 8-horizontal)

6 Utica Shale formation (1-vertical, 5-horizontal)

Numerous well applications cancelled or expired.

Chenango County Planning Department anticipates that all future applications will be for the Utica formation.