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Fracking delay could take weeks or much longer

Marie Cusick/Innovation Trail

On Tuesday, New York state officials announced another delay of their final decision on hydrofracking. The Department of Environmental Conservation will wait for a report on the health protections in its environmental review of fracking. Then the environmental review can be completed. The delay could be less than a month or it could be much longer. But one thing is clear - the delayed health review is now the key factor in deciding whether or not fracking will go ahead in New York.

On Tuesday, Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah sent a letter to Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens saying he needs more time to complete his health review. Martens then announced that his department’s environmental study, known as the SGEIS, will be delayed until Dr. Shah is done.

That means final regulations won’t be released at the end of the month. The SGEIS was due Wednesday to meet a Feb. 27 deadline for the regulations. Now that the SGEIS is on hold, the regulations will go back out for public comment.

But that delay won’t necessarily slow down fracking.

In an interview with New York Public Radio’s Karen DeWitt, Martens said permits could be issued once the SGEIS is complete.

“If you look back at the 1992 SGEIS for oil and gas drilling in New York, there was never any rules adopted after that and the department has been issuing well permits, you know, since 1992,” says Martens.

Completing the SGEIS

The 1992 SGEIS only addressed traditional, vertical drilling. That’s why a new one was started in 2008. Martens added that the release of the SGEIS is dependent on what the health department finds.

“You know New Yorkers ought to be ensured that it’s getting the highest level of scrutiny, that Dr. Shah is absolutely committed to making sure this is safe before we do anything,” says Martens.

Those two statements – that permits for hydrofracking can be issued before regulations are done and that the health department is extending its study – gave both sides reason to believe they’re winning the debate.

In his letter, Shah says his department will review three ongoing health studies before making its conclusion.

According to Kate Sinding, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Shah could very easily say in a few weeks that New York needs to wait until those three studies are further along.

“You know I think when you look at it all taken together it’s pretty clear there aren’t going to be permits issuing in any kind of short-term here in New York,” says Sinding.

The three studies

One of the studies, conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, won’t be complete until 2014. Another led by University of Pennsylvania is just starting. The third, by Pennsylvania health care provider Geisinger, is also just getting under way.

According to Geisinger spokeswoman Amanda O'Rourke, their study is beginning its first phase, which by itself will last one to three years.

Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates of New York applauded the state's decision to delay release of the SGEIS. She says if officials are serious about fully considering health impacts, they should wait until the three studies are finished.

“And Dr. Shah indicates something similar in his letter saying that you know the time to ensure that impacts on public health are properly considered is before the state permits drilling,” says Nadeau.

The quicker option

Supporters of drilling also found something in Tuesday’s announcements to applaud.

Scott Kurkoski is a lawyer representing the pro-fracking Joint Landowners Coalition of New York. He says everything depends on what the Department of Health comes back with, but that shouldn’t take as long as opponents predict.

“I don’t think that Dr. Shah is saying that he is going to wait for the final study to be published," says Kurkoski. "But he is going to be talking to the authors of these studies and various agencies to make sure that he has all of the information that they have.”

That means a few weeks to prepare a final report for the Department of Environmental Conservation. Then, if the Department of Health gives the go-ahead, the final SGEIS comes out and ten days after that, permits can be issued.

“That’s how we’d like to see this proceed,” says Kurkoski.

So after waiting four-and-a-half years to hear what the DEC decides on fracking, now it’s a few more weeks to hear what the Department of Health decides on the same issue.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.