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Cuomo Proposal Would Restrict Gas Drilling to a Struggling Area


ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration is pursuing a plan to limit the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing to portions of several struggling New York counties along the border with Pennsylvania, and to permit it only in communities that express support for the technology.

The plan, described by a senior official at the State Department of Environmental Conservation and others with knowledge of the administration’s strategy, would limit drilling to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale rock formation in an effort to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.

Even within that southwest New York region — primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties — drilling would be permitted only in towns that agree to it and would be banned in Catskill Park, aquifers and nationally designated historic districts.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations in the administration are continuing.

The strategy has not been made final and details could change, but it has been taking shape over several months. It would be contingent on hydraulic fracturing’s receiving final approval from state regulators, a step that is not a foregone conclusion but is widely expected later this summer. Department of Environmental Conservation regulators last year signaled their initial support for the drilling process around the state, with exceptions for environmentally sensitive areas like New York City’s upstate watershed.

Since that announcement, the Cuomo administration has been deluged with tens of thousands of e-mails and letters mostly objecting to the process, which is better known as hydrofracking or fracking, and protesters have become a regular presence at the Capitol.

Mr. Cuomo’s administration is now trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area, while also honoring the opposition expressed in some communities, and limiting the ire of environmentalists, who worry that hydrofracking could contaminate groundwater and lead to other hazards. The administration had initially expected to allow 75 hydrofracking permits in the first year, but now expects to reduce that to 50.

In fracking, large amounts of sand, water and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressures to extract natural gas from rock formations.

President Obama expressed support for natural gas drilling in his State of the Union address this year, saying, “The development of natural gas will create jobs, and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

But concerns have persisted about the chemicals used in the process. Last year, for instance, federal regulators linked fracking to a contaminated water supply in part of central Wyoming.

In New York, while more than 100 communities have passed moratoriums or bans on fracking, a few dozen in the Southern Tier, a row of counties directly north of Pennsylvania, and in western New York have passed resolutions in favor of the drilling process.

Dewey Decker, the town supervisor of Sanford, N.Y., at his farm; he is a member of a coalition of landowners who support hydraulic fracturing.
Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

“A lot of people look at this as a way to save our property,” said Dewey Decker, a farmer, a member of a coalition of landowners supporting fracking and the town supervisor of Sanford, in Broome County, at the Pennsylvania border. Residents of the town, including Mr. Decker, have already leased thousands of acres to a drilling company.

Mr. Decker said that the area’s traditional dairy business had been in sharp decline, and that the promise of fracking had already helped some residents. He said there were “a lot of people who, when we signed and got the upfront money, were going to be losing their land and couldn’t pay their taxes.”

The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation that stretches from the Appalachian Mountains into the central and western parts of New York. State regulators believe that by limiting drilling to areas where the Marcellus Shale is at least 2,000 feet deep, risks of contaminating the water supply with toxic chemicals will be reduced. Regulators would require drillers to maintain a 1,000-foot buffer between water sources and the top of the shale formation.

Environmental groups have been divided over whether fracking should be allowed at all. Some mainstream environmental organizations have not closed the door on the idea of fracking.

“We recognize that gas is going to be part of our energy mix and it’s preferable to other types of fuels that are out there,” said Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “So it’s not really an option to say ‘no way’ to natural gas. But we’re not in a rush to see this resource extracted in New York.”

Mr. Moore called the Cuomo plan, which is being developed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, an “interesting idea.”

“I’d say it’s encouraging that D.E.C. continues to look at these issues very thoroughly and carefully, but there are a lot of questions about how this would roll out,” he said. “Can communities that want to opt in handle it? Is there enough emergency response in the region to handle well explosions? Spill response?”

By contrast, a coalition of lesser-known groups opposes fracking under any circumstances and plans further demonstrations.

“Sending a polluting industry into our most economically impoverished communities is a violation of environmental justice,” Sandra Steingraber, the founder of an umbrella group called New Yorkers Against Fracking, said in a statement. “Partitioning our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation is a shameful idea.”

Reflecting the frustration of such groups, the actor Mark Ruffalo, perhaps the state’s highest profile opponent of fracking, urged his more than 200,000 Twitter followers to send a message to the governor: “Let’s keep his phones tied up all day.”

The critics have been countered by the industry’s considerable lobbying muscle. Ten companies or trade groups that lobbied on fracking and other issues of concern to the natural gas industry spent $4.5 million lobbying in Albany over the last three years, according to an analysis prepared by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

James Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said of the proposal being considered by the Cuomo administration, “We view it as a positive step.”

“We expect when the D.E.C. has completed its review, the folks that make these decisions will be convinced that it can be done safely,” he added. “It’s good news for the farmers and other landowners in the Southern Tier, and small businesses that have wanted this to occur, and municipalities and local governments that will reap the benefits of the taxes that are going to be collected. And it’s good news for our members.”