The term "fracking," short for hydraulic fracturing, has moved from an obscure type of natural gas extraction to an issue debated by environmentalists, government officials and movie stars. And recent action by outgoing New York Governor David Paterson placed the decision of how to regulate the practice in the hands of the next Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
Environmentalists won an important battle this fall when the New York state legislature imposed a temporary ban on fracking. But over the weekend, Governor Paterson undid some of that work, permiting some types of fracking to continue, even as he banned fracking of so-called "horizontal" wells through July, 2010. In contrast to the more common vertical wells, horizontal wells make a 90 degree turn to the side once they reach a certain depth, enabling them to tap gas from a wider area.
At a rally Monday, actor Mark Ruffalo described a visit he made to a town in Pennsylvania, where private drinking water was spoiled by a new, nearby gas well.
"They don't have clean drinking water. What more basic thing can you have as a human being than that?" Ruffalo told a crowd of about 50 people, who had gathered outside of the Governor's office on Third Avenue in Midtown.
While Ruffalo may be known for playing the irresponsible dad in the summer hit The Kids Are Alright, he said in real life, he's a responsible father who is raising three kids in the Hudson valley and wants to leave them a cleaner earth.
He told the crowd that on Friday he had personally lobbied Governor Paterson to sign a temporary fracking ban that passed both houses of the legislature.
"It was a very good conversation," Ruffalo said.
But, one day later, the Governor vetoed the bill.
"From a government perspective, you cannot take the action to shut down a whole industry," Paterson said in his first public comments since issuing the veto.
But here it where it gets complicated. Paterson nixed the ban, he said, to enable safer forms of drilling to continue. But he also ordered a more limited drilling timeout, and asked for an additional layer of environmental review of fracking. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation has been working on a supplemental environmental impact statement since 2008.
All of this means means that debate on the issue will continue well into the Cuomo administration.
And the debate is not just in Albany. The US Environmental Protection Agency is conducting its own study of fracking. And an intergovernmental body, the Delaware River Basin Commission, recently issued draft regulations that would count as an additional layer of regulation along the rivers and streams that drain into the Delaware River, both in New York and in Pennsylvania.
Environmentalists said they were disappointed some fracking will continue, but that overall, Paterson's move is a good thing - more scrutiny will mean better regulations.
The gas industry said the risks of fracking have been exaggerated and that gas drilling could bring in revenue for a state that badly needs it.