By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — The public-comment period for new draft state rules on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas opens today. Depending on whom you talk to, the proposed regulations favor drillers, or they represent a way to placate environmental activists out to prevent drilling before it begins.
The 30-day public-comment period brackets two major holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and expires Jan. 11. After that, a major public-policy decision is expected from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration: After years of debate, should hydrofracking permits be issued in New York?
Just one thing is certain: No one appears to be fully embracing the regulations that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued to replace an earlier set of draft rules that, if enacted, would have ended the state’s current moratorium on hydrofacking in New York.
The new draft regulations have spurred so much agitation among gas drilling opponents that they are planning to stage what they vow will be the biggest demonstration to date against hydrofracking in New York — with a massive rally in Albany on Jan. 9. That is the same day, noted Sustainable Otsego founder Adrian Kuzminski of Fly Creek, that Cuomo will issue his State of the State speech.
By issuing a set of revised draft regulations that would oversee hydrofracking before completing research on an environmental impact statement, the Cuomo administration is “putting the cart before the horse,” Kuzminski said.
The state, he pointed out, is also waiting for the conclusion of a review by three natural gas drilling experts — billed by Cuomo administration officials as independent evaluators with no stake in the outcome — of the health impacts from allowing gas drilling in New York.
The other side is running out of patience. Advocates of gas drilling say the new regulations are even more restrictive than the earlier version. Worcester Town Board Member David Parker, active in a pro-drilling landowners coalition, called the new round of public comment on revised regulations “frustrating and disconcerting.”
Parker said he was concerned the Cuomo administration is bowing to “ideologues” locked into opposing gas drilling, despite what Parker claims are the enormous economic benefits of allowing shale gas extraction.
Gas industry lawyer Thomas West of Albany, involved in an effort to overturn the town of Middlefield’s ban on hydrofracking, said the revised regulations will ultimately discourage drilling.
“We’re taking the highest environmental bar in the world and making it even higher,” West told The Daily Star on Tuesday. “Although industry welcomes a high bar, it has to be an attainable bar. It’s going to be more expensive to drill in New York than it will be in other states. That will slow down the rate of return of industry to New York state.”
West said he expects gas drilling permits will be issued by the state agency by mid-2013. However, he cautioned that it is probable those permits will likely face court challenges from anti-drilling groups.
“I don’t know of too many companies who will want to come in and invest in the permit only to find out the Department (of Environmental Conservation) can’t issue it,” West said.
Robert Nied, the director of the Schoharie County-based Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, an organization that opposes hydrofracking, said the issuance of revised regulations before the health assessment has been completed “gives you the impression that we’re on the track to issue permits.”
“There seems to be some momentum to start issuing permits at some point,” Nied said. As for Cuomo, he noted, “We have seen no indication that he is not going to permit” hydrofracking.
Cobleskill Village Mayor Mark Galasso, who backs the natural gas industry in its quest to drill in New York, said he believes the Department of Environmental Conservation should be applauded for being what he called “the most thorough environmental protection agency in the world.”
Galasso said the nation now has 1.1 million hydrofracked wells, and if any of them had caused harm to the public, it would have been thoroughly documented by now. Claims that hydrofracking will have deleterious health consequences, he maintained, “is a red herring put up by a group of people who just don’t want it to happen.”
“The Southern Tier is on the verge of bankruptcy,” he said. “For the sake of our economy and the survival of upstate New York, I hope it happens.”
Three Democratic state Assembly members who head important committees in Albany, meanwhile are urging DEC to extend the public comment period to 60 days. The Assembly is planning to hold its own public forum on the proposed regulations.