By JOE MAHONEY
COOPERSTOWN -- Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas could be permitted soon in a limited number of Southern Tier counties -- but only in towns that do not object to the controversial drilling technique, according to a report in Wednesday's edition of the New York Times.
Citing information supplied by an unnamed state Department of Environmental Conservation official, the newspaper said a plan being evaluated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration would permit hydrofracking primarily in Chenango, Broome, Chemung, Steuben and Tioga counties.
The Cuomo administration has scaled back initial plans to issue 75 fracking permits in the first year of the program, with most recent projections envisioning just 50 permits going to drillers if and when the state signs off on allowing the horizontal drilling method to take place, the Times said.
The plan calls for shale gas drilling to be limited to places with deep deposits in the Marcellus Shale geological formation "for the next several years, in an effort to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination," the newspaper said. According to the report, state regulators would limit drilling to regions in which the shale formation's depth exceeds 2,000 feet, which would rule out the majority of Otsego and Schoharie counties. However, the shale's depth in the southern portions of both counties does exceed 2,000 feet.
The information was leaked to the Times several days before members of Sustainable Otsego and other anti-drilling groups are scheduled to stage a media conference in the state Legislative Office Building in Albany to draw attention to the rising number of towns enacting drilling bans and moratoriums.
Reacting to the report, Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, said it would be "premature" for the Cuomo administration to allow horizontal drilling to commence because there are not sufficient safeguards to prevent destructive effects on drinking water and other natural resources.
"I would need to see more assurances that it is going to be a safe process," Magee said.
The newspaper said the plan would be to keep drilling out of the Catskill Park and away from aquifers and nationally designated historic districts
Otsego County Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, said the reported plan to permit drilling in towns that have not banned it is expected to embolden anti-drilling activists to fight harder to convince more communities to keep out drilling through zoning and land-use amendments. Kosmer is among those planning to participate in the media conference in Albany on Monday.
"The real race that is going on is between DEC (the state Department of Environmental Conservation) permitting it and towns trying to institute bans," Kosmer said.
He said the suggestion in the Times story that drilling would only be permitted in towns that accept it will not mollify fracking critics who favor having the technique banned throughout the state.
"We're now in a battle to help Cuomo get the proper information that banning fracking is good for New York because it is good for business," Kosmer said. "Everywhere fracking goes, nothing happens again. When they leave in three to seven years, there is nothing else left there."
The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York views the report of Cuomo preparing to allow horizontal drilling in the Southern Tier region as "another positive step for New York," industry groups spokesman Jim Smith said.
"We think this will demonstrate what we have been saying all along, and that is that natural gas drilling can be done safely in New York," Smith said.
Another advocate for allowing drilling in New York, Otsego County Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, said he believes that the state will eventually expand the territory where drilling is initially permitted so that it encompasses Otsego County.
"When people see it's not going to lead to the end of the world -- as some portray it -- then you will see it come here," Powers said. "There is no way you are not going to do this (allow drilling to go forward). It would be like saying little boys don't like little girls anymore. It's not going to happen."
State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, was not immediately available for comment today on the Times story. Seward has proposed legislation that authorizes towns to determine their own fates on whether to allow drilling or keep it out. His spokesman, Jeff Bishop, said he did not have a chance yet to confer with his boss on the Times story.
Seward has been pressured by some pro-drilling business leaders from the Oneonta area to back off his support for the home-rule legislation. Critics of the bill argue it would have "unintended" negative consequences for industry.
Rep. Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, was also not immediately available for comment.