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Jon Campbell, Pressconnects.com  12/20/2011

ALBANY -- An outside consultant has been asked to take a closer look at the cost natural-gas drilling would have on communities, the state's top environmental watchdog said Tuesday.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said the agency has directed an outside firm to look at the impact the gas industry would have on things like the housing market and emergency services if high-volume hydraulic fracturing is given the go-ahead in New York.

The move came after some members of the DEC's hydrofracking advisory panel had questioned why a September report by the firm -- Buffalo-based Ecology & Environment -- went to lengths to highlight the economic benefits of drilling and hydrofracking, but did little to quantify potential costs.

In places like Pennsylvania, where large-scale drilling has already been allowed and communities have experienced an economic boost, available housing has quickly been gobbled up and rent rates have skyrocketed.

"We provided (Ecology & Environment) with feedback on areas that we'd like them to look at, and I think universally it was felt that some of the specific socioeconomic impacts should be expanded upon," Martens said Tuesday after the panel met behind closed doors.

The DEC commissioned Ecology & Environment earlier this year to study the economic benefits of gas drilling, with the company finding an expansion of the gas industry in New York would create anywhere from 6,000 to 37,000 direct jobs.

Ecology & Environment was paid $233,000 for the report.

The study was included as part of the DEC's ongoing review of hydrofracking, which was launched in 2008 and has kept the drilling technique on hold. The agency has proposed a set of regulations and recommendations that would limit drilling near water supplies and ban hydrofracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds. High-volume hydrofracking won't be allowed in the state until the review is finalized.

Environmentalists have been critical of hydrofracking, which involves the injection of mass amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart underground, gas-rich shale, such as the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in New York. Governmental agencies have linked gas drilling to water contamination in Pavilion, Wyo. and Dimock, Pa.

Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of 18 members of the DEC's hydrofracking panel, said the expanded review of the socioeconomic impacts is welcomed news.

"At previous meetings, there were some suggestions that it would be appropriate to look at some other issues that weren't addressed," Goldstein said. "That's the purpose of having a draft, so you can identify gaps and hopefully fill them in."

When asked when the DEC's review and recommendations would be finalized, Martens said the growing flood of public comments on the agency's proposals makes the question difficult to answer.

"I get asked this question every time, and every time I get asked, the number of comments grows," he said. "We're near 16,000 comments now; we had 13,000 for the original (2009 draft review.)"

A comment period on the DEC's recommendations expires Jan. 11. The agency has to review and respond to each comment before finalizing its document.

"It will take months, so I can't say whether it's going to be three months, four months, five months, but it will take months to do it properly and make sure we have a document at the end of the day that is truly responsive to the input we've gotten from the public," Martens said.

Mike Elmendorf, president of the Associated General Contractors of New York and a founding member of pro-hydrofracking coalition Clean Growth Now, said it's clear that the benefits of gas drilling "far outweigh the costs."

"This notion isn't theoretical," Elmendorf said. "New York is sitting on the sidelines while natural-gas development in places like Pennsylvania and North Dakota is already lifting entire states out of the recession -- increasing economic output, tax revenues and employment opportunities."

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