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Without inspection force, New York courts trouble

Strict enforcement of tough regulations is all that stands between natural gas frackers and the people of New York. The state's gas drilling regulator, the Department of Environmental Conservation, tells us not to worry, that all is under control. Gresham's law, however, tells us there is plenty to worry about.

When an organization is charged with both short-term, highly programmed, revenue-producing tasks and long-term, unprogrammed and costly tasks, Gresham's law predicts the short-term tasks will take precedence.

The DEC both issues drilling permits and is also charged with follow-up inspections of the drilling operations. Issuing permits is a highly programmed, short-term task and one that generates a lot of money for the department. Inspecting thousands of gas wells over their 30-year life spans, however, is a highly unprogrammed, manpower intensive and costly task. Gresham's law warns that the DEC will enthusiastically issue drilling permits and neglect the follow-up inspections.

Currently, the DEC has a nine-person staff to oversee more than 13,000 active vertical oil and gas wells in New York, or one inspector for every 1,400 wells. This is hardly a permits-to-inspectors match that builds confidence. And, in 2010, in anticipation of the horizontal gas drilling boom, former Gov. David A. Paterson's request for $2.5 million to hire 16 additional gas well inspectors was turned down by Albany lawmakers. Not a convincing show of political support.

And how does the DEC propose to solve its permits-to-inspectors problem? The agency writes: "The Department proposes to limit permit issuance to match the Department resources that are made available to review and approve permit applications, and to adequately inspect well pads and enforce permit conditions and regulations."

Since DEC does not control the number of applications it receives, its budget or its manpower resources, this is a hollow promise. Without political support, the DEC can't begin to close the permits-to-inspectors gap.

Both vertical and horizontal wells pump toxic fluids into the earth. The big difference is that vertical wells are limited, by regulation, to 80,000 gallons per frack, whereas horizontal wells will use 5 million or more gallons per frack. That is why horizontal fracking will require hundreds more inspectors.

What New York needs is a legally binding permits-to-inspectors ratio that makes sense -- say, one additional inspector for every 10 new horizontal fracking drilling permits. Such a commitment, according to the Heisenberg principle of management, will pay off handsomely since close government oversight alone exerts a psychological influence that will improve how carefully gas drillers do their job.

In this way, according to the Heisenberg principle, New York will "get what it inspects, not what it expects."

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Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is a member of the Town of Colden environmental planning board.

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