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Marcellus drilling opponents cheer passage of NY moratorium


ALBANY - Opponents of natural gas drilling in the Southern Tier's Marcellus Shale formation today are cheering the state Senate's approval of a short-term moratorium late Tuesday night.

The measure sailed through the Senate, 48-9. If approved by the Assembly and Gov. David Paterson, permits to drill for natural gas in the formation would be delayed until May 15, 2011.

Now focus turns to the Assembly, where supporters of the drilling moratorium believe it could be taken up soon.

"I think it has overwhelming support in our house," said Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Bablyon, Suffolk County. "We were waiting to see the Senate move the bill forward."

State Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, voted against the measure.

Sweeney said the Democratic-led Assembly could return to Albany in September to take up the measure.

The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, uses a mixture of water and chemicals to blast through rocks in order to access the gas.

Proponents believe the drilling is safe and would be lucrative to the economically depressed region.

Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, an industry lobby group, blasted the moratorium.

"Our lawmakers would rather raise taxes and fees than generate some real revenue," Smith said.

He added that the bill goes further than intended and would hinder drilling projects that have already been approved.

"We're hopeful that the Assembly will take the more objective and scientific approach to this discussion," Smith said.

Those opposed to drilling in the Southern Tier are concerned the process will wreak environmental havoc.

"This is a huge step forward to protecting our water in New York state from the dangers of natural gas drilling," said Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates of New York. "We're very excited for the Assembly to take it up."

Lawmakers who backed the moratorium believe a delay in granting permits will allow state leaders and the new governor time to learn more about hydraulic fracturing and develop restrictions designed to maximize safety.

"Last night was an opportunity to say that we need to give the next governor to come in and also that we need to look at what legislative actions that need to take place in New York," said Sen. Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, the main supporter of the moratorium in the Senate.

Thompson attributed the passage to the bill in part to the explosion of an underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and passionate support from environmental groups.

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