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Politics and Government

More questions on new Cuomo administration fracking delay

The Cuomo administration has announced two developments that could delay the start of hydrofracking in New York, and is leaving supporters and opponents with many unanswered questions.In the past ten days, Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation has taken two significant steps that are likely to push off any permits for natural gas drilling into at least 2013.  

First, after months of resisting the idea, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens announced  that Cuomo’s 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, late on a Friday, the time when politicians are most likely to release news they’d like people not to notice, the Department of Environmental Conservation admits it has given up on meeting a November 29 deadline to have rules in place to regulate fracking, if the environmental assessment were to indicate fracking could go forward.

Jim Smith is with the Independent Oil and Gas Association, the lobby group that represents the gas drilling companies.  He says there is a “rising level of frustration” among supporters of fracking.

“The key concern is how long those delays will be,” said Smith. “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. Late last month, the department reversed a position that the two bureaucratic processes were separate and has now linked them. Spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, in a brief written response, says the restart of the rule making will include another round of public hearings, and public comments.

Smith, with the gas industry lobby, says he hopes that does not 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,” said Smith.

Environmentalists are encouraged by the newest delay, but also have a number of questions. Katherine Nadeau, with Environmental Advocates,  says it is 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 timetable.

“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.