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Great Lakes Article:

Bill would ban oil, gas drilling under Great Lakes

By Damita Chambers, Associated Press, 6/12/2002 23:47

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) New contracts for oil or natural gas drilling under Lakes Ontario and Erie would be banned under legislation proposed in the state Assembly.

The legislation would prohibit agreements reached beginning Jan. 1, 2003, for new pipelines and projects for directional drilling, a process of drilling into lake bottoms from onshore wells. The cutoff date falls within a two-year federal ban on oil drilling in the Great Lakes that ends June 2003.

''The Great Lakes, both recreationally (and) economically, are absolutely critical to the region. Anything that threatens that raises a red flag with me,'' said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Erie County, the bill's main sponsor.

While state conservation laws already ban natural gas and oil drilling under Lake Ontario and oil extraction in Lake Erie, the Assembly legislation would close a gap in the legislation to prevent all forms of directional drilling in both lakes.

Environmentalists say directional drilling releases the toxic chemical, hydrogen sulfide, that could contaminate shorelines or the water itself and pose a public health risk. Arsenic, lead, mercury, and other dangerous materials used in the drilling process, as well as pipelines, could leak.

Currently, no natural gas drilling contracts or leases for Lake Erie are listed with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, a spokeswoman said.

Hoyt said he proposed the bill after speaking with environmentalists about the Millennium Pipeline, which is awaiting federal approval. The 425-mile, $683 million conduit, proposed by the Fairfax, Va.-based Columbia Gas Transmission Corp., would carry natural gas from Canada across 12 New York counties from Lake Erie to the New York City area.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a tentative approval for the pipeline in December to the chagrin of environmentalists, as well as state and local leaders and residents. They say it would threaten drinking water supplies in New York City and Westchester County and harm fish and wildlife in Lake Erie and the Hudson River.

The bill in Albany, however, would not apply to the pipeline nor does Hoyt envision doing so.

Nonetheless, energy companies say the bill would hurt their industry.

''This bill would really limit what we do and what we need to do in the future,'' said Julie Coppola Cox, spokeswoman for National Fuel Gas Company in Buffalo. ''(Directional drilling) can be done with little impact to the area where we're seeking to install the facilities.''

Company officials have brought their concerns to Hoyt, who says the threats to the environment outweigh the state's energy needs.

''While I support efforts to provide new natural gas opportunities, and hopefully at a lower cost, my priority is looking out for the environmental impact of any such efforts on the Great Lakes,'' Hoyt said.

Michigan lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation in January to make the federal drilling ban permanent, despite protests from Gov. John Engler. Wisconsin and Ohio are working to pass similar laws.

Jennifer Nalbone, habitat biodiversity coordinator for Great Lakes United in Buffalo, said ''we're very excited about New York state stepping up in line with the other Great Lakes states.

''The states are recognizing the value is beyond just what we can extract from it,'' she said. ''You want a drilling rig on a coastal zone or do you want to preserve it for future generations?''

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