Consultants’ role in NY drilling study questioned

ALBANY, N.Y. — Government watchdog Common Cause and 11 environmental groups raised more questions about the role of gas industry-associated consultants in the state’s environmental impact study of shale gas drilling and fracking.

A review of Department of Environmental Conservation documents obtained by Common Cause through Freedom of Information Law requests shows two more firms with memberships in the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York were contracted for the state’s review.

The review, still incomplete after five years, is to determine whether hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laden water deep into the ground, will be allowed in the state.

On Wednesday, environmental groups and a dozen state legislators questioned the role of consultant Ecology and Environment Inc. in the review. Common Cause said Thursday that Alpha Geoscience and URS Corp. also were contracted for the review. All three had employees with memberships in IOGANY.

Groups seeking a state ban on fracking have used several arguments to call for DEC’s environmental review to be started again from scratch, which would add more years to the current moratorium on it. The main argument has been a call for a comprehensive health impact assessment with public participation. The state health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, is reviewing whether safety measures recommended by DEC are adequate to ensure public health and safety. Completion of the DEC review hinges on his determination.

Questions about the objectivity of the three outside consultants were raised after IOGANY sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday urging him to lift the moratorium.

“New Yorkers deserve and demand a truly independent evaluation of the risks and benefits attendant to hydraulic fracturing and should not be expected to trust the results of these consultants’ work,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY.

The letter the industry group’s executive director, Brad Gill, wrote to Cuomo was accompanied by a list of more than 200 IOGANY members including the three state consultants.

“The public can be assured that exploration for natural gas in New York is — and has been — safe, good for our environment and for our economy,” Gill wrote.

Ecology and Environment said Wednesday it had severed ties with IOGANY and didn’t authorize use of its name on the letter. The company takes no position on fracking but provides objective consulting services, its lawyer said.

The list of members has been removed from IOGANY’s online posting of its letter to Cuomo.

“The credibility of several firms who employ our individual IOGA members has been recklessly challenged,” Gill said in a prepared statement Thursday. “It is absurd to allege that these experts, possessing an informed, scientifically based opinion, would sacrifice the respect and reputation they have earned.”

Common Cause said the three consulting firms were involved in reviewing and writing responses to more than 66,000 public comments submitted to DEC’s draft environmental impact study. Ecology and Environment also was hired to do an analysis of economic and social impacts of fracking for inclusion in the environmental study. That analysis, released in 2011, was criticized by environmental groups for painting too rosy a picture.

URS Corp. is a San Francisco-based company that provides engineering, design and construction services to private companies and numerous state and federal government agencies in the areas of oil and gas, infrastructure, power and industrial projects. It lists four offices in upstate New York.

Alpha Geoscience, based in the Saratoga County town of Clifton Park, provides specialized consulting services in geology, hydrology and environmental science. Services listed on its website include assessment of potential impacts on ground and surface water resources and evaluation of potential impacts of oil and gas projects on geologic resources, aquifers and groundwater quality.

Thomas Johnson, vice president of Alpha Geoscience, sent a letter to Gill saying it was inaccurate to list the company as a corporate member, even though some of its employees are members. He said IOGANY is not authorized to issue correspondence on behalf of Alpha Geoscience.

URS issued a similar statement, saying IOGANY didn’t get its permission to include it in the letter and they were discussing that with the organization. It also said IOGANY memberships are open only to individuals, not companies or corporations.

According to IOGANY’s website, individual memberships are offered to employees of IOGANY member companies or those who are sole proprietors in their own companies. It says 35 percent of dues payments are considered “lobbying expenses.”

The DEC said Thursday it asked the three companies to “clarify their membership status” with IOGANY after the reports of potential conflict and got letters from each saying they weren’t corporate members and hadn’t been asked for permission to be listed on the letter.

An environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was not one of the 11, said it’s not uncommon for consulting firms to work for public agencies and private industries.

“What really crosses the ethical line is having membership in an advocacy association that is advocating a particular point of view on the subject where they’re being asked to provide impartial evaluation,” Council lawyer Kate Sinding said.