When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office last year, his administration seemed to be in hurry-up mode as it decided whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, a controversial gas drilling process. State regulators kept to tight deadlines to produce for public review an environmental impact study and proposed drilling rules, and the state’s top environmental official said drilling permits could be granted as early as this year.
But now, a decision on the process, known as hydrofracking — its scope, its timing or whether it will happen at all — seems much more uncertain, and the approval process has slowed considerably despite almost four years of study, debate and intense lobbying on both sides of the issue.
Mr. Cuomo did not mention hydrofracking in his State of the State address last month, and did not provide money in his proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year for regulating the new industry.
The governor’s office declined to answer questions Monday on the slowing of the approval calendar, but cited a statement by Mr. Cuomo in the fall of 2011 that a decision on hydrofracking should be based “on the facts and on the science.”
“This is not an issue to be decided by politics or emotion,” the governor added.
State regulators say they need more time to deal with the unprecedented volume of public comments about the drilling plan by the Department of Environmental Conservation — more than 46,000 for or against, or pointing out unresolved concerns. Others say there is less urgency given the low market price of natural gas and a recent announcement by some major drilling companies that they plan to curtail production.
Even some of the most outspoken advocates for hydrofracking are showing patience, including Tom Libous, the second-ranking Republican in the State Senate, who represents the natural-gas-rich Southern Tier, on the Pennsylvania border.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a given,” he said of the state’s permitting hydrofracking. “Economically, we need it desperately. But at the end of the day, if the scientists and geologists at the D.E.C. say ‘this is not a good thing to do,’ I’m not going to challenge it.”
New York officials have been cautious from the start, revising and twice submitting for public review an environmental impact document incorporating the lessons learned from other states that allow hydrofracking on the Marcellus Shale. The extraction process uses vast amounts of water, chemicals and sand to release gas from tight rock and has posed environmental risks, some of them still under study by the Environmental Protection Agency. As New York decides, new concerns have surfaced, including the fear of water contamination and seismic activity related to the disposal of drilling waste.
Opposition to hydrofracking has grown and organized. Some elected officials said the controversy had raised new political considerations, especially during this election year.
“It’s causing everybody to say, ‘Let’s not rush into this,’ ” said Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, a Democrat from Suffolk County who has sponsored a bill calling for a moratorium on hydrofracking until June 2013, to allow more time for study.
Mr. Sweeney, who leads the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, said the strong public sentiment could not be lost on the Cuomo administration.
“The first time something bad happens,” he said of the consequences of drilling, “it’s going to come right back to them.”
Last month, in his most recent remarks on the subject, Mr. Cuomo indicated that hydrofracking was very much an “if.”
“You would not be hiring staff to regulate hydrofracking unless you believed you were going ahead with hydrofracking,” he told reporters. “And we haven’t made that determination. So the budget won’t anticipate hydrofracking approval.”
An 18-member advisory panel convened by Joseph Martens, the state environmental commissioner, to determine how to pay for state workers overseeing hydrofracking postponed issuing its recommendations, missing the Nov. 1 deadline. The panel has been on hiatus since December. Two of its meetings have been canceled since the public comment period closed Jan. 11, as the Environmental Conservation Department reviews the mounds of feedback, sifting for any information that would warrant further revisions.
Robert Moore, a panel member and executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said the costs of minimizing hydrofracking’s risks had become a bigger issue now that some gas companies have gone into a retrenchment in response to the glut of natural gas. The industry would ultimately be responsible for the fees and taxes necessary to defray the costs of hiring and training state regulatory workers.
“With gas prices being what they are, it’s unclear what profits can be made,” he said. “If there’s no profit, there’s no tax revenue.”
Another panel member, Assemblywoman Donna A. Lupardo, a Democrat from Broome County, said, “It all boils down to two questions: what level of risk are we willing to accept, and at what cost?”
Gas companies are fighting New York’s proposed rules, arguing that they go too far and impose unnecessary restrictions and costs on the industry. Companies already estimate that they would have to spend an extra $1 million per well to drill in the state because of tougher requirements, including a rule that would require an extra layer of cemented well casing to prevent the gas from seeping out. Despite the market and the regulatory challenges, companies remain eager to drill, and to determine how much shale gas New York wells might yield.
“We don’t even know the quality of the resource in New York, and how New York production compares to neighboring states,” said Thomas S. West, an Albany lawyer who represents oil and gas companies. “If we opened the door, it’ll be a very slow ramp-up, and that’s a good thing.”
Environmental advocates note that the industry has every incentive to pursue drilling in the state, since it anticipates a bright future in the long term, particularly as it pursues federal approvals for exporting liquefied natural gas overseas. Lawsuits challenging what the state does could also alter the timeline.
“If the D.E.C. doesn’t adequately respond to the comments, there’ll likely be litigation,” said Deborah Goldberg, a lawyer with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
Among those seeking a drilling ban, some have said they are prepared to engage in civil disobedience if it will stop the new drilling technique.
“People are ready to take unusual action,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a Democrat from Tompkins County and a vocal hydrofracking opponent. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Author: Mireya Navarro
Source: The New York Times