Sustained Outrage

NY’s former top environmental official talks fracturing

Today’s must-read is an interview by ProPublica’s Marie C. Baca with Pete Grannis, who, until he was fired last month, was commissioner of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. While in office, Grannis created the first fracturing chemical disclosure rules in the country.

With some of the northernmost reaches of the Marcellus shale formation located in New York, Grannis has dealt with many of the same issues confronting regulators in West Virginia. (See previous coverage here, here, here, here and here.)

Here are a few questions and answers, but I encourage anyone interested to read the entire interview, which occurred over two sessions.

What was it like to balance two mandates from the state: to protect New York’s environment, and to develop those resources for profit?

Well, there are obviously pressures on both sides. My job as a regulator was to make sure that legal activity took place in a way that didn’t harm the environment. We really committed huge resources to making sure that if this process is to proceed it will be done safely. … We were very clear that we weren’t going to rush ahead and then wonder if we did it right later on.

But in the summer of 2008, the DEC seemed prepared to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing without exploring the possibility of water contamination or having a clear idea of how drillers would treat the wastewater.

That is not true. Right from the beginning we understood that this issue required additional review. We were under no obligation to push for something beyond the generic environmental impact statement, but we felt like it was the right thing to do. Some of the accusations you’re talking about have been extraordinary, but the truth is that the department has a phenomenal track record of regulating drilling, and we’ve set the most stringent standards in the country for hydraulic fracturing.

Was there ever a time when you felt the dual mandates from the state created a conflict for you?

For most of my environmental stakeholders, the people I know and work with, there was near-universal condemnation of the possibility of drilling. I felt tremendous pressure from friends and colleagues to make sure this was done right. On the other hand, the landowners in some of these poor communities across the southern tier saw [drilling] as a salvation. They were sold a bill of goods that their payments were contingent upon drilling activities beginning sooner. They were putting pressure on us, the administration and their local legislators, to move more quickly. But I never thought of it as a real conflict. I knew very clearly what our responsibilities were. I knew there was this divide between the fact that this was a legal activity and the fact that it has considerable disruptive potential. This drilling is an unattractive, disruptive, commercial activity with requirements that need to be met. I was never in any doubt that if we found a path forward it would be in a way that didn’t affect the environment.

On the kind of preparations necessary before states go forward with fracturing:

What do you think needs to take place before New York is ready for drilling in the Marcellus Shale?

We need to finish the review to make sure that we have all the facts, have anticipated every risk, have set out a way to mitigate every risk that we identify, and that we have sufficient legal and human resources to make sure that we have the authority to do what we need to do. The human resources have to be scaled based on that drilling activity. The plan was to have on-site monitors, to do test borings and testing wells around potential well sites so that we could have baselines for before and after comparisons. Obviously truck traffic is going to have an impact on the communities. That’s one of the areas where our — I’m speaking as if I’m still there but I’m not — where there’s going to be a big community impact. It wasn’t really a concern with conventional drilling because it didn’t take place at this scale.

Let’s talk about Pennsylvania for a minute. What do you think about what that state is going through right now with regard to drilling?

As you can imagine, we are aware of every single time there’s a blip on the drilling front in any jurisdiction anywhere in the country. We’ve been carefully monitoring that, and we knew about all these issues when we started the environmental impact statement, and it’s been constantly factored in during the writing process. I think they rushed ahead and did things without the kind of attention that we’re giving this very important issue, and they’re paying a price for it. We’re very mindful of things there and want to make sure that the things happening there don’t happen in New York.

On anticipating the consequences before going ahead with drilling:

There’s been concern that the fracking process might interact with natural fissures in the bedrock and contaminate groundwater.

We need to be sure that’s not going to happen — that’s part of this review process. You can’t just blow something like that off.

A number of states that have only dealt with conventional forms of drilling, limited drilling or no drilling at all are now facing a deluge of companies that want to perform hydrofracking. What advice would you give regulators in those states?

First and foremost, I would hope they understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry and to get it right in the beginning, because the consequences later on can be dangerous, damaging and harmful to the economy. Then, make sure you have the people on hand to make sure that the process is functioning properly. It’s no good to give a permit — the way they did to Cabot in Pennsylvania [9] — and then have them botch up a well bore or have them not case it properly. You need people on site who are not answerable to the driller, and not answerable to the people they are having dinner with that night, but accountable to the regulator. Last, there needs to be a very clear message that if anything does go wrong it will be 100 percent the responsibility of the drilling operations, whether that requires posting a bond or a standard of strict liability. If we’re going to have a clean energy economy that’s not dependent on sources outside of our borders, there are things that need to be done, and they need to be done properly. It’s the same thing with windmills, solar panels, atomic energy or gas drilling. Nothing’s easy because no one wants to turn off their lights and just save energy that way.

On the likelihood that different states will develop different regulatory standards regarding fracturing:

Are you worried about the trajectory of gas drilling in this nation, given that few states have developed standards as stringent as New York’s?

Yeah, I am. I’m very concerned. I still watch the coal mining in West Virginia and the gas drilling throughout the country. We’re perfectly willing to say, “Don’t drill here, but let’s get the gas from areas that have nowhere near our level of concern for the environment.” My worry is that the constant pressure on [New York] to do the right thing means that we are going to be relying on someone else’s less-than-active engagement in some of these areas. It’s embedded in their economy, and they see things differently. This needs to be part of our fuel mix and our economic mix, but it just needs to be done right.