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Bankrupt hydrofracking company sues Cuomo administration over delays

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A bankrupt energy company is suing the Cuomo administration over the long delayed decision on whether to allow hydrofracking in New York state. Their attorney says the action was prompted by remarks made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his health commissioner earlier this week.  

Norse Energy had once hoped to frack natural gas in New York’s Marcellus Shale. But they say as the Cuomo administration’s environmental review languished, they we're driven out of business. They say around $100 million in assets has been obliterated, along with 100 or so jobs.

Their attorney, Thomas West, accuses Cuomo and his environmental and health commissioners of deliberately dragging their feet for political reasons.

“The lawsuit is our attempt to bring an end to this long, ongoing process that’s been going on for five and half years,” said West.

West says the company finally decided to file their lawsuit after the governor and Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah, commented on an ongoing related health study on Dec. 16.

Shah, who began the health review fifteen months ago, said he was continuing to investigate the evolving science, and needed some privacy in order to do so.

“Science needs to be done in a sacred place where we can with objectivity understand both sides of the issue,” said Shah. “The process needs to transparent at the end, not during.”

West says he’s using Shah’s statement as part of the grounds for the lawsuit.

“We think they were remarkably candid,” West said. “But we don’t think that’s the way the process is supposed to be done.”

West says the State Environmental Quality Review Act, known as SEQRA, is supposed to be transparent.

“There’s no reason why he can’t tell the people what studies he’s been looking at,” West said. “And what he expects to be gained from his trips to California and Texas and where ever else he’s going at taxpayer expense.”  

Dr. Shah has revealed that he’s traveled to other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, to learn more about the potential health effects of the gas drilling process.

The lawsuit also charges that Cuomo is inappropriately micro-managing the entire process.

But Cuomo, saying it’s a major decision with potential health consequences, says he’s letting his environmental and health commissioners take the lead. He says it’s better to be right than fast.   

“I don’t want to put any undue pressure on them that would artificially abbreviate what they’re doing,” said Cuomo. “They should do a thorough review, when they are ready and they feel it’s appropriate, they’ll tell us.”

Katherine Nadeau is with Environmental Advocates, which opposes fracking. She says there’s nothing in the state laws that say an environmental review must be completed within a certain time frame.

“There are no timelines written into our environmental review laws, and that’s for a reason,” Nadeau said.

She says other states have rushed into a decision, and have belatedly tried to regulate after the fact.  

Nadeau says Norse Energy is trying to bully state officials into making a decision before all the information is in.

John Armstrong, with New Yorkers Against Fracking, calls the lawsuit ridiculous. But he also agrees that enough time has passed for Cuomo and his top aides to make a decision on fracking. And he says they should decide no.

“He should ban fracking,” Armstrong said.

The papers were filed in state Supreme Court in Albany. West says he’s seeking a hearing on the matter, and wants to subpoena Cuomo administration records.  A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation says they are reviewing the complaint.

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.