New York state still awaiting fracking decision

Apr 12, 2013

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner is expected to release a health report on hydraulic fracturing soon, at least according to a timetable announced in late February. But the Cuomo administration has already missed several deadlines on fracking.

The decision on whether to allow hydrofracking in New York seems to be yet again in limbo. Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, said a month ago that he was still in the midst of a health review, requested by the governor’s environmental department last September, but that he expected to be done in a few weeks. But Dr. Shah, in his only public comments to date, seemed to contradict even that deadline.

“I anticipate that we will be done in the next few weeks,” Shah said on March 11. “There’s no real timetable.”

The latest delay comes after nearly five years of public hearings, environmental reviews and missed deadlines by Cuomo’s administration, as well as under former governors.   

Since Dr. Shah’s remarks, the New York State Assembly has passed a two year moratorium on fracking. Although the bill has not come up for a vote in the Senate, there is considerable support among Democrats and members of the Independent Democratic Conference.

Senators are facing pressure to act on the moratorium. The latest urgings come from New York City officials, who held a news conference at City Hall. New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio warns that fracking could threaten drinking water and food supplies that might be contaminated by the gas drilling.

“If we fail, we are endangering the health of thousands and thousands of New Yorkers,” said de Blasio. “We are endangering the future of our environment.”

Opponents of fracking increasingly see the delays on a final decision as a hopeful sign.

Cuomo seemed to acknowledge the ever-growing influence of the anti-fracking movement recently. He answered a question about a Quinnipiac poll that showed for the first time, a majority of New Yorkers clearly oppose fracking.

“What people think and feel matters,”Cuomo said. “Is it necessarily determinative? No.”  

The governor also offered some advice to the pro-fracking movement, which includes land owners who want to lease their land to the companies for profit, and lobby groups like the Independent Oil and Gas Association. Cuomo says fracking supporters should consider why it is that numerous New Yorkers are afraid of the gas drilling process.

The governor’s remarks were prompted, in part, by statements from the Petroleum Council, who urged the governor to get moving on the issue.

“You have work to do,” said Cuomo, who somewhat sarcastically thanked the group for the "advice" on how to do is job.

“Here’s some gratuitous advice on how to do your job,” Cuomo said. “Talk to the people of the state, talk to the legislators and elected officials of the state, and explain to them why their fears are all unfounded.”  

Karen Moreau, with the Petroleum Council, says it appears the verbal “attacks” were to set up the pro-fracking movement as the fall guys if the decision is ultimately against fracking.

“It seemed like he was looking to put blame on someone,” Moreau said. “Certainly other than his administration.”  

Moreau says any more promotions by the oil and gas industry could seem self-serving to the public, and she says it’s really up to the state’s environmental agency, using its staff of scientists, geologists and engineers, to look at the data objectively, examine results in the 29 other states that allow fracking, and decide.

“That should have happend.by now,” said, Moreau, who says the issue has been “studied to death.”

“Now it’s down to, I believe, a political decision on the part of the governor,” she said.

The health studies under review include ones from the Pennsylvania health care company Geisinger, as well as the University of Pennsylvania, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Those studies will take years to complete, and Dr. Shah admits that the science of fracking right now is a “moving target.” But Cuomo says he will not necessarily wait until the studies are completed.

There’s another possible sign that fracking could be delayed even longer.  The recently passed state budget contains no provision for extra staff at Cuomo’s environmental department. State Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens has said he’d need at least 100 more employees to carry out permitting for any new drilling.