ALBANY, N.Y. – State regulations make for pretty dull reading, but you’d never know it from the mountains of cardboard boxes of public comments generated by the latest gas-drilling guidelines proposed by New York’s environmental agency.
Many of the 204,000 letters anti-drilling groups say they submitted are the result of social media outreach and meetings at libraries, community centers and churches where organizers would hand out form letters and stamped envelopes.
Environmental groups say the volume of comments demonstrates the intensity of sentiment against natural gas development, but the industry dismisses it as a misrepresentation of actual sentiment and a tactic to stall development by drowning regulators in an ocean of paper.
If nothing else, it demonstrates the grass-roots organizing power of the anti-gas drilling movement in New York, where high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, hasn’t even begun.
A statewide network of hundreds of anti-drilling groups revved up the effort shortly after the Department of Environmental Conservation posted updated regulations online at the end of November. When the public comment period ended Jan. 11, a coalition of groups called New Yorkers Against Fracking announced it had presented 204,000 comments to the agency.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DEC are expected to decide soon whether to lift a 4½-year-old moratorium on fracking, which has made vast quantities of natural gas accessible to drillers who use the technology to crack gas-rich rock about a mile underground in the Marcellus Shale, which underlies southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in the other Marcellus states and around the country.
DEC has a Feb. 27 deadline to finalize new regulations or start new rules from scratch. Before then, regulators have to read all the public comments and respond to substantive issues raised.
They have their work cut out for them. The agency received what it termed an “unprecedented” 66,000 comments on the earlier version of the regulations and the 1,500-page environmental impact study they were based on, and took most of 2012 to read, categorize and respond to them.
DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the department has 30 to 40 employees at its downtown Albany offices going through the comments, the majority of which are form letters. DEC is still counting the comments and as of Thursday had nearly 120,000.
Drilling companies, industry groups and pro-gas landowner coalitions also have submitted comments, some of them criticizing certain requirements as far too restrictive.
“I would categorize this as another stall tactic stunt,” Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said of the anti-fracking comment effort. “It’s nothing more than a reminder of how passionate and well-organized the opposition groups are to this industry.”
“While anti-fracking groups produce hundreds of thousands of valueless comments, the gas industry has produced hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs,” added Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council.
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and leader of New Yorkers Against Fracking, set out to translate regulations into understandable language for people so they could respond. She spoke at several community meetings held to generate comments, and put up a website where she dissected one section of the regulations each day of the comment period.
“My little website project alone generated more than 20,000 comments,” Steingraber said. “I don’t tell people what to write, I just give the facts and say, ‘Knock yourself out.”’
A new group called Students Against Fracking, a coalition of campus-based anti-fracking groups, organized an online campaign to get college students home on holiday break to write comments on the regulations.
Younger students were also recruited to comment.
“A number of school classrooms took time to go through the regulations and have students write comments,” said John Armstrong of Frack Action.
The industry-funded group Energy in Depth denounced a fourth-grade classroom comment-writing exercise in Middletown as “student indoctrination.”
Logan Adsit of South Otselic in Chenango County went to one of six letter-writing events held in the Southern Tier – the counties near the Pennsylvania line where shale development is most likely to begin if it’s approved. The meeting was organized by the Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group. “They had stamped envelopes and sample letters that you could just sign and mail,” Adsit said. “But most people wrote their own.”
Jill Weiner, a member of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, said her group generated 23,924 comments. “We did a ton of research and put together 13 letters our members could take and expand on, or sign and send in as comments,” she said.
Alex Beauchamp, a professional organizer for New York City-based Food and Water Watch, said the generation of 204,000 comments was an impressive achievement.
“Generating petitions for decision-makers is a tactic used in all kinds of campaigns,” Beauchamp said. “Often, it’s like pulling teeth even to get people to sign a petition. It was good to see people really delve into this.”