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The Empire

New Details on Fracking Policy

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By Karen DeWitt, New York Public Radio Capital Bureau Chief

One of the biggest and most controversial issues facing New York in the New Year is hydrofracking. Governor Cuomo’s environmental department is conducting a review process and is likely to begin issuing permits sometime in 2012.

Earlier in the year, it seemed that the Cuomo administration was on a fast track to allow hydrofracking in New York. In June, state environmental officials proposed allowing the gas drilling process on some private lands in the state. They began a review process that was to have been completed by the end of 2011. But they added four public hearings and extended the public comment period until January 11th.

Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said that after the review process ends, he and his staff will have to sift through at least 16,000 new comments.

“It will take months to do it properly,” Martens said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation had hoped to complete a tax and fee structure for drilling in time to be included in the governor’s budget proposal in mid January.

Those decisions were to have been made by an advisory panel representing the industry, environmentalists and the legislature. But the panel failed to come up with a tax and fee plan in time, and those discussions will continue into the New Year.

Without the fee structure in place, the D.E.C won’t have the resources to hire staff to issue the permits or make sure that the gas drillers comply with all the new regulations that will eventually be in place. Currently, the department has just 16 employees who are involved in energy well drilling. Commissioner Martens said the current capacity to review any new applications for drilling is “very limited to non-existent”.

It’s estimated that 100 to 200 new regulators and permitting experts would be needed to oversee the expected new drilling activity.

Martens for the first time in late December suggested that permitting may begin very slowly and possibly be phased in over time.

“People have suggested looking at specific geographic areas, phasing in the process,” Martens said. “We’re looking at all of that.”

Governor Cuomo has not weighed in with any opinions about hydrofracking, preferring to let his environmental commissioner take the lead for now. The governor in the fall said he was still keeping an open mind.

“Let’s not respond emotionally,” Cuomo said in October. “Let’s get the facts.”

Rob Moore, with Environmental Advocates and a member of the fracking advisory panel, said he is relieved that state officials seem to be taking a more considered approach recently, and he hopes that continues.

“I think the state should be very cautious about trying to drill in 2012,” Moore said.

Moore says a number of uncertainties and questions remain, including the economic impact of the industrialization that comes with gas drilling on remote rural areas, and what Moore says is the uncertain profitability of the drilling companies, now that gas prices have plummeted.  The environmental group would also like more data on potential health impacts of drilling and potential contamination of drinking water.

The lobby group for the gas companies, Independent Oil and Gas Association, has spent recent months trying to build community support, holding public forums in communities where fracking may take place. Spokeswoman Cherie Messore admitted that fracking has become a negative “buzz word”, and said the group’s goal is to lessen fears about hydrofracking and help the public be more informed.

“There is a great deal of misinformation,” Messore said.

She said fracking is safe, when all of the environmental rules are followed, and many of the companies interested in drilling already have good track records in New York.

Steve Greenberg, a political analyst with the Siena Research Institute, said fracking presents a “potential landmine” for Governor Cuomo whether the state ultimately allows or bans the gas drilling.

Greenberg said the governor risks alienating either environmental groups or the powerful gas industry and faces a “lose-lose” situation.

Polls show the public is evenly divided about whether fracking is a good idea for the state’s economic future.