ALBANY — State lawmakers are pushing a bill that would set new spacing requirements for oil and gas drilling rigs, and amend state environmental law to allow horizontal drilling wells for the first time ever.
The bill — which passed the Senate and will likely reach a vote in the Assembly before its session ends Monday — would notably impact Sullivan County, where oil companies have solicited property owners for the rights to drill and excavate natural gas from their land. Oil companies would use horizontal drilling wells to retrieve the gas, which is trapped within the Marcellus Shale more than 6,000 feet below ground.
State law has not explicitly allowed or disallowed horizontal drilling, although some horizontal rigs have operated under special-use permits that slightly altered the boundaries set by law for vertical wells. Horizontal wells did not fit into those boundaries because they’re dug horizontally on a plane beneath ground and impinge on vertical well setbacks in the current law.
Drilling info sessions
Several groups are hosting info sessions about gas drilling in the coming weeks. Experts will explain the drilling process and its pros and cons.
n Friday at 9:30 a.m., Sullivan Planning Commissioner William Pammer will discuss gas drilling with town supervisors in the County Government Center.
n June 27 at 7 p.m. in the CVI Building in Liberty, lawyers and environmental experts will discuss gas drilling in a forum moderated by Catskill Mountainkeeper.
The new bill says it would create two sets of parameters for horizontal drilling. The first would divvy the land into rectangles, allowing single drill wells on roughly 40-acre plots. The downside to this option is that each drill requires a 5-acre clearing, which would cut several holes in the wooded landscape, like an Afghan blanket.
Option No. 2 would limit that kind of development by allowing multiple drill wells at one centralized location. The drills pipes would fan out from the central location, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. This option would be allowed on parcels of land up to 640 acres.
Both options must maintain a 330-foot setback from the drill or end of the horizontal well. That’s down from 660 feet that was required for vertical wells. The DEC said both drilling patterns also require a full environmental review for impacts on ground water, erosion, endangered species and more.
Some have criticized the bill because it lessens the setbacks and speeds up the permitting process for oil companies, who will no longer have to endure hearings before an administrative law judge and the public to get special use permits.
"In some ways, the existing law is probably better right now because it slows the process down a bit," said Wes Gillingham, program director for the Catskill Mountainkeeper environmental group. "The new law opens up the opportunity for oil companies to move at a faster pace."
Environmental groups are worried about water and air pollution that could result from drilling, the rigs and the powerful diesel engines they run on.
But state Sen. John Bonacic, R-C-Mount Hope, said the environmental concerns have been sensationalized, and that the new law provides the DEC with new teeth and regulations. Bonacic voted in favor of the law when it passed the Senate this week.
"There have been 75,000 gas wells over decades in New York, and not one instance of damage to water or the environment," he said. "What we’ve done is give the DEC more powers on their checklist to make sure the environment is protected."