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Fracking overshadows other issues on Earth Day

On Earth Day lobby day at the state Capitol, whether or not to allow hydrofracking in New York continues to be the dominant issue.

The Senate and Assembly Environmental Committee chairmen both take a dim view of the controversial gas drilling process, but they differ over what’s the next step.

Assembly Environmental Committee Chairman Bob Sweeney believes in a clearly legislated moratorium. In fact, the Assembly has already passed one.

“I think it is pretty clear that this is a bad deal not only environmentally,” said Sweeney. “But it’s a bad deal economically too.”

Senate Environmental Committee Chairman Mark Grisanti says the state already has a de facto moratorium on fracking, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration continues to study the potential health impacts.

“There is no funding in the budget for it,” said Grisanti, who says numerous studies are still going on. “I would personally like to see those studies completed,  before you sit there and say ‘Ok, we need a ban,’” he said.

As part of the assessment, Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah is examining several ongoing studies in Pennsylvania and by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Some of those studies could take years to complete.  Sen. Grisanti says if it takes more time to determine the health impacts, then he’s okay with that.

Grisanti is part of the Senate Republican Conference, with co-leads the Senate with a group of breakaway Democrats. Some GOP senators are strong supporters of fracking.

Grisanti, who spoke along with Assemblyman Sweeney at an Earth Day lobby day event, was booed by some anti-fracking activists for his views.

Julia Walsh, of Frack Action, says Grisanti is “shirking” his responsibilities. She says if the votes of the Senate Democrats who hold minority party status in the Senate are counted, along with votes from the ruling coalition of Republicans and some break away Democrats, then the moratorium could pass.

“The question is whether or not this is going to be brought to the floor for a vote,” said Walsh.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association, the lobby group for the oil and gas industry has written an Earth Day letter to Cuomo, saying there’s been a “profound misunderstanding and misrepresentation” of the gas drilling process, and that “ all credible scientific research” shows natural gas is the “cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” and that fracking is safe.

Meanwhile, the public remains divided on whether they want fracking to go forward.

A Siena College poll finds New Yorkers polarized, with about the same amount urging that fracking go forward as those who are against it, says Siena’s Steve Greenberg.

“We see little movement from month to month,” said Greenberg, who says the question has been polled for more than a year now. “What we see is a divided electorate,” Greenberg said.

Dr. Shah, in a rare public statement, has said there is no timetable for him to complete his research on the health impacts of fracking. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.