Series of Delays Has State’s Fracking Backers Skeptical

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The Cuomo Administration has announced two developments that could delay the start of natural gas drilling in New York, and is leaving supporters and opponents with many unanswered questions.

In the past 10 days, Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation has taken two significant steps that are likely to push off any permits for fracking into at least next year.

First, after months of resisting, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens announced that the health department would undertake a health impact review based on data collected by his agency before a  much-anticipated environmental impact assessment would be finished.   

And now, the DEC has said it’s given up on meeting a November 29deadline to have rules in place to regulate fracking, if the environmental assessment were to give the green light.

Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, the lobby group that represents the gas drilling companies, said there’s a “rising level of frustration.”

“The key concern is how long those delays will be,” Smith said. “Anything prolonged at this point would be very disturbing.”

A spokeswoman for the DEC says since the environmental assessment is now delayed because of the new health review, the rule-making process has also fallen behind.

The department late last month reversed a position that the two bureaucratic processes were separate and has now linked them.

DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, in a written response, said the restart of the rule-making will include another round of public hearings and public comments.

Smith, with the gas industry lobby, said he hopes that doesn’t mean going back to square one in a fracking approval process that began back in 2008.

“We would not support a back-to-the-drawing board approach,” Smith said.

Environmentalists are encouraged by the newest delay, but also have a number of questions.

Katherine Nadeau, program director of Environmental Advocates,  said it’s good news that there will be another public hearing and comment process.

She believes the tens of thousands of comments from public hearings late last year led to the decision to go ahead with a health impact review. But she says the somewhat cryptic statements from the Cuomo Administration need clarification.

“This is an example of public policy by press release,” said Nadeau, who said the underlying “complex issues” need to be more openly discussed.  

The environmental group is calling on the governor to “commit” to holding off on any fracking permits until all of the data is in.

Cuomo has continuously said that his environmental agency is gathering all the science and the facts. The administration earlier in the year seemed more in a hurry to complete the environmental assessment and rule making. But in recent weeks the governor has said there’s no time table.

“It’s done when it’s done,” Cuomo said recently.   

In the meantime, Smith, with the gas drilling company lobby group, says many companies are abandoning plans to drill in New York. He says there’s just too much uncertainty here, and other states offer a more stable regulatory climate that helps the companies to make business decisions.

“These are, in some cases, very large investments,” said Smith. “Without the regulatory certainly they can’t guarantee success.”

A leaseholders group that is eager for drilling to begin calls the two recent developments “serial delay tactics.” The Joint Land Owners Coalition of New York, based in Binghamton, accuses the governor of “turning his back” on struggling farmers, retirees and long time residents.