Department of Environmental Conservation

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Protecting the Environment During Well Drilling and Operation

Environmental Protections for Oil and Gas Development

Society needs oil, natural gas, and minerals, but land, air and water must be protected during siting, development, operation and closure of oil and gas wells. The state Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law requires drillers to apply sound environmental principles, returning areas affected by minerals development to a condition that allows continued productive use of the land. A well drilling or plugging permit is required before site preparation and drilling/plugging can begin on an oil, gas, underground storage or solution salt mining well of any depth, or a brine disposal, geothermal or stratigraphic well deeper than 500 feet.

DEC's Division of Mineral Resources reviews all oil and gas drilling permits in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) to ensure that the environmental impact of resource extraction will be mitigated to the greatest extent possible. Records indicate that more than 70,000 wells have been drilled in New York. The division has computerized records on more than 34,000 wells, of which about 14,000 are active.

Using Permits to Protect Land, Air and Water

DEC Inspector at drilling site

To protect the land environment during and after oil and gas extraction, drilling permit requirements inhibit oil spills, prevent ground water contamination and require proper disposal of highly saline brines and other wastes. The permits also require that land impacted by drilling be properly reclaimed.

To protect the environment during drilling, each permit includes conditions designed to prevent the escape of gas from wells. Department staff monitor drilling sites for compliance with these conditions, and the department brings enforcement actions against violators.

Drilling permits protect groundwater by mandating a casing and cementing program for each well. Casing and cementing prevent the flow of oil, gas or salt water between underground formations. In addition, drilling rules and regulations require setbacks from municipal water wells, surface water bodies and streams. Permits also require proper disposal for all wastes and proper containment of drilling fluids.

Staff of DEC's Division of Mineral Resources are all highly trained and well qualified for drafting permits and inspecting drilling sites. Most oil and gas regulatory staff are petroleum engineers, petroleum geologists or technicians.

Enforcement and Remediation of Violations

Article 23, Title 3 of the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) authorizes the Department to require that wells be drilled, constructed, operated and plugged, and the surrounding land reclaimed, to prevent or remedy "the escape of oil, gas, brine or water out of one stratum into another" and "the pollution of fresh water supplies by oil, gas, salt water or other contaminants" and also provides authority to "order an immediate suspension of drilling or production operations whenever such operations are being carried on in violation . . . " [ECL 23-0305(8)(d) and (g)].

ECL Article 71, Title 13, grants the Department broad authority to address violations of Article 23 or any regulation, order or permit condition. The statute provides for administrative sanctions, including civil penalties of up to $5,000 for a violation or offense and up to $1,000 for each day a violation continues. The Commissioner has the power to "direct the violator to cease the violation and reclaim and repair the affected site . . . " [ECL 71-1307(1)].

Article 71 also provides for civil sanctions through the Attorney General and criminal sanctions for misdemeanors with penalties or fines up to $1,000 per day for continuing violations and up to one year imprisonment, or both. The Department, acting through the Attorney General, may also seek injunctions against violations or threatened violations of Article 23.

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM)

The Department's Division of Solid and Hazardous Materials published a report in 1999 which found that NORM contamination of well drilling equipment and wastes do not constitute a health risk for the State's residents nor present a potential degradation of the state's environment. This conclusion was based on direct radioactivity measurements and gamma spectrometry analysis of scales, sludges, sediments, soils, water, rock, brines, waxes, and oils taken from over 100 well sites in western and central New York.