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Health Dept.: Transparency to come when fracking review ends


ALBANY – New York’s health review of hydraulic fracturing will continue behind closed doors because science needs to be conducted in a “sacred place,” the state’s top health official said Monday.

State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah told reporters Monday that the science surrounding high-volume fracking continues to “evolve” and that scientific work must be conducted in private to maintain objectivity.

Details of Shah’s review -- which will help guide a decision on whether to allow high-volume fracking in New York -- will remain private until it’s finished, he said. He has faced criticism for the lack of transparency around the review.

“The process needs to be transparent at the end, not during,” Shah said.

Asked when the public will be able to see his work, Shah said: “When I’m done.”

The state Department of Health began its own review of fracking -- a technique used to help extract natural gas from underground shale formations -- in September 2012, while the Department of Environmental Conservation began crafting permitting guidelines in 2008.

As far back as January, Shah had said his work would be completed within weeks. High-volume fracking remains on hold in New York until Shah’s work is finished, allowing the DEC to complete its review.

“For the last few months, I’ve said that as the science evolves, we will reflect the science in my recommendations,” Shah said. “As recently as a month ago, we got new data from Texas and Wyoming, and until I’m comfortable with the state of the science, I’m withholding my recommendation.”

Cuomo said that while his administration has moved quickly on other efforts, such as building a new Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley, fracking is a complex issue. He said he would not pressure Shah to reach a conclusion.

“I want the right decision, not necessarily the fastest decision,” Cuomo said Monday. “When it's appropriate to move fast, we can move fast. I think we've shown that over and over again.”

Cuomo had previously indicated that a fracking decision would be made before Election Day next year. But he said Monday that there is no timeline, though he “would expect” a decision before Election Day.

“But my timeline is whatever Commissioner Shah needs to do it right and feel comfortable,” Cuomo said. “It's a major decision.”

Shah’s comments were panned by Karen Moreau, executive director of the state Petroleum Council, who said the public has “no information whatsoever about where or why or how Dr. Shah is going about this review.”

The oil-and-gas industry has long expressed frustrations with New York’s de facto moratorium on fracking, with the bankruptcy trustee for now-defunct Norse Energy expected to sue the state as soon as Tuesday.

“I don’t think anyone at this point really believes any of these statements coming out of the (Cuomo) administration,” Moreau said. “I don’t think anyone, including our industry, takes anything they say seriously.”

Cuomo on Monday said a decision on shale-gas drilling will be “one of the most important decisions we will make as a government, with far-reaching consequences.”

William Cooke, director of government relations for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the Cuomo administration is to be commended for taking its time on a fracking decision.

“We are strongly encouraged by the due diligence being given by the administration and the Department of Health. We believe that they should take whatever time they think is necessary,” Cooke said. “That’s certainly not weeks, probably not months.”