03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

State Must End Threat to NYC's Drinking Water

"How could any one well be so profitable that it would be worth damaging the New York City water system?"

With that pointed question, Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, explained his company's decision last week to refrain from drilling for natural gas in New York City's upstate watershed.

Now it's time for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to show as much concern for New Yorkers' drinking water as the industry it regulates and permanently ban drilling in the Catskill / Delaware watershed.

The new application of a drilling technique called "hydraulic fracturing" has recently made it possible to extract great supplies of natural gas from an underground formation stretching across the southern tier of New York State called the Marcellus Shale. By fracturing the shale with the aid of chemically-treated water pumped deep into the ground (a single well can consume 3 million gallons), natural gas can now be captured in a commercially viable way.

Experts estimate that New York State's natural gas reserves may be large enough to meet national demand for a period of 20 years. Energy companies are eager to get started, and the economic payoff for upstate New York's recession-strapped families and municipal governments would be substantial.

But neither these benefits, nor last week's pledge by Chesapeake Energy eliminate the need for Governor Paterson and the State environmental agency to step up and establish a permanent ban on drilling for natural gas in the city's watershed.

In fact, a drilling ban is more important than ever:

First, the stakes are simply too high to rely on half measures and partial environmental protections like the buffer zones and special permits proposed by the State at the end of September.

Just across the border in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing has been allowed, families are plagued by drinking water that separates into sludge, sediment, brown liquid, and bubbles. If that becomes the fate of New York City's unfiltered water supply, not only will we be confronting a serious public health crisis, but the tab for building a filtration system will be in excess of $10 billion.

Second, a press release is not a contract, and last week's public announcement by Chesapeake Energy is no substitute for government-mandated environmental protection.

Mr. McClendon and his company should be recognized for the steps they have taken. But virtually all of Chesapeake's watershed leases will expire after five years. Even before that point there is no guarantee that Mr. McClendon will remain the head of the company. A year or two from now, once this controversy has passed, there will be nothing to prevent a corporate deal that nullifies Chesapeake's pledge.

Third, without a change to the status quo and a ban on watershed drilling, the State environmental agency is at risk of forfeiting the public's trust. Private action cannot preserve our natural treasures, and environmental harm is often irreversible. Never is the government's responsibility to future generations greater than when it comes to protecting the environment.

Governor Paterson and DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis have built admirable environmental records over the years. Today, however, State regulators trail everybody else in protecting New York City's drinking water, despite the fact that they alone have the authority to do so.

The United States Congress is poised to enact special protections to meet the threat of water contamination from gas drilling. Mayor Bloomberg has expressed his deep concern about drilling in the watershed. Concerned citizens from Manhattan to Monroe County are raising their voices. And now, even an Oklahoma based drilling company sees the wisdom of banishing its operations from the city's watershed, the largest source of unfiltered drinking water in the nation.

It's time for the State to reverse course, join the parade of environmentalists, permanently ban drilling in the watershed, and allow New Yorkers to stop worrying about their drinking water.

Scott M. Stringer is Manhattan Borough President.