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Strictly Business: Is this the year for fracking in N.Y.?


I'm beginning to wonder if high-volume hydraulic fracturing, the method of extracting natural gas from tight shale formations underground, will ever be allowed in New York.

I don't say that because opponents have successfully lobbied against it. I say that after looking at the enormity of the task now facing New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

At midnight on Wednesday, the state's top environmental watchdog agency closed the four-month public comment period on the environmental impact review and rules that will regulate fracking. DEC will now prepare a "responsiveness summary" to address each substantive issue raised during the comment period on the latest environmental impact statement and the first draft released in 2009.

If you think that's what the DEC administrators get paid the big bucks for, then consider this and show some sympathy. There were about 13,000 comments received on the first draft. This time around, the agency has nearly 40,000 comments on a variety of fracking-related health and environmental issues.

A group calling itself NY Water Rangers had something to say to DEC. Environmental groups, including Walter Hang's Toxics Targeting of Ithaca, gave Gov. Andrew Cuomo nearly 500 letters and a petition with more than 20,000 signatures citing what they consider serious flaws in the regulations drafted by DEC.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountainkeeper and Delaware Riverkeeper Network said their review of the 1,500-plus-page document showed the whole thing needs to be redone. To back up its claims, the coalition submitted more than 500 pages of comments including review and analysis by consultants with backgrounds in hydrology, toxicology, economics and other specialties.

The Environmental Protection Agency has gotten in on the act. The federal agency cited numerous shortcomings in the first environmental review draft and submitted additional comments on the latest version. The EPA is also conducting its own scientific study on how high-volume fracking impacts water resources.

And in the blue corner, fracking supporters say the proposed regulations will prevent environmental harm and bring thousands of jobs and other economic benefits to New York. They've tossed around numbers like $21 billion, which is said to represent lease and royalty payments going to landowners in Broome, Chemung, Tioga and Steuben counties.

To that end, a pro-drilling landowners' group has submitted comments signed by 10,000 of its members. A coalition of residents, businesses, labor, and political leaders rallied in Albany and four other upstate cities on Tuesday to voice support for natural gas development and the $5.8 billion in new potential tax revenues it stand to create.

Meanwhile, the Independent Gas and Oil Association of New York says the repeated delays in New York's environmental study have resulted in lost jobs, and overregulation will make it too expensive for energy companies to drill in New York. The trade group also says the DEC's proposed setbacks and areas where drilling will be banned puts half of the New York's "known and desirable" Marcellus Shale formation out of bounds.


Sometime later this year, the DEC optimistically estimates it will have waded through the tens of thousands of comments to see if they are all adequately addressed in the draft environmental impact statement. If so, the agency says it intends to issue the final regulations and begin to review permit applications for using fracking to drill into Marcellus Shale.

But I see things differently. I foresee injunction-hungry opponents tying the issue up in the courts. I see local governments passing "home rule" laws banning fracking, and frustrated landowners challenging those new laws. In short, I don't see too much changing from where we are today -- pro- and anti-fracking groups in New York continuing their debate while the risks and rewards of high-volume hydrofracking are playing out less than 20 miles away in Pennsylvania.

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