Governor Mulls Fracking Ban, as Anti-Gas Drilling Bill Advances

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Governor Paterson says he hasn't decided whether to sign into a law a bill that would make New York the first state in the nation to temporarily ban a controversial natural gas drilling technique. Late Monday night, the Assembly in Albany voted by a wide margin to approve a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking.'

The Senate already passed the same measure last summer.

On WCNY-Albany, Governor Paterson said Tuesday "it is better not to reveal whether or not you're going to sign something until you have thoroughly researched it. And I'm not at that point yet. I did not know the Assembly was going to pass that bill." 

Paterson has ten days to sign the bill, or it becomes law automatically. 

Energy companies are now urging Governor Paterson to veto the legislation, arguing that it is so broadly worded, it would bring a halt to virtually all gas drilling in the state.

"I sell gas directly to Kraft Foods in Avalon, New York. If I can't meet their supply, I can no longer supply them with gas," said John Holko, President of Lenape Resources in Alexander, NY. Holko has written to Governor Paterson, saying he is seriously considering moving his company out of state.

"This bill was written to say 'we, New York State, the Assembly and the Senate want you out of New York. Go Away,'" Holko said.

Supporters of the legislation are doubtful the Senate could muster enough votes to override a veto.

Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground to free up natural gas deposits. In other states, the technique has been linked to spills and explosions, and it's under study by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

While fracking is widely used, safety concerns center on the large volume of water needed to extract gas from so-called "unconventional" geologic formations, like the Marcellus Shale. The Marcellus stretches from the Catskills to eastern Ohio, and has been estimated to hold enough gas to meet the nation's total electricity demand for several years. But conditions in the Marcellus are more challenging for drillers than in "conventional" gas fields.

There is currently no fracking activity in New York.

The halls of the Assembly in Albany were filled with passionate voices Monday night, as members debated an issue that stirs strong emotions on both sides. 

"What we're saying by this bill is that we would rather send our young men and women to places like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to die in the desert so that we can have the energy from those countries, rather than to drill gas wells right here in New York State," said Assemblyman William Parment (D-Chautauqua County).

Ultimately, the bill passed by large margin - 93 to 43.

Environmentalists were quick to praise the Assembly.

"New York has shown the country that Americans have a right to stand up to big oil and gas companies," said Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is the first time any state has ever taken this kind of action to protect the health and safety of its residents from the consequences of gas drilling."

If enacted, the fracking ban will last until May 2011, giving Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo time to formulate his administration's policy on the issue.

This article was updated Tuesday evening.