By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star
---- — State Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said Tuesday his agency could approve shale gas permits before hydrofracking regulations are completed if a separate study determines the controversial drilling method will not threaten the public health.
Martens issued the statement after state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah indicated he needs “additional time” to finish his review of the potential health impacts of high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Shah informed Martens in a letter that his review would wrap up “within a few weeks” and that he and his “team” will be in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., in the days ahead for briefings on health studies being conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Martens signaled the state Department of Environmental Conservation could issue permits to drilling companies even without regulations in place as long as the health review does not point to negative health impacts.
“If the DOH (Department of Health) Public Health Review finds that the SGEIS (Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) has adequately addressed health concerns, and I adopt the SGEIS on that basis, DEC can accept and process high-volume hydraulic fracturing permit applications 10 days after issuance of the SGEIS,” Martens said in a statement. “The regulations simply codify the program requirements.”
Marten said the delay in the health study means his own agency will will not meet the deadline of today to complete the environmental impact statement of shale gas drilling. Issuing the environmental impact statement is required in order to meet a Feb. 27 deadline for the drilling regulations.
Reaction to the developments was mixed.
Yoko Ono, the widow of slain Beatle John Lennon and the leader of a group called Artists Against Fracking, praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the extension given by his administration for the health study.
“Thank you, Gov. Cuomo, for taking time to do a more complete health study,” said Ono, who has a home in the Delaware County town of Franklin. “We look forward to the results, and time for public comment afterwards. We love you, Governor.”
A spokesman for the pro-drilling group, Energy in Depth, John Krohn, attacked the latest delay in a process that began more than four years ago.
“At the eleventh hour, Gov. Cuomo’s senior staff announce that three studies, none of which are expected to be complete anytime soon, are the cause for the most recent delay,” Krohn said. “Meanwhile, state and federal regulators have stated natural gas development is a safe process and entire states are seeing their economies transformed.”
Sandra Steingraber, the Ithaca College scholar in residence who leads New Yorkers Against Fracking, said the state must complete a comprehensive health study before making a decision about issuing permits.
“Commissioner Shah is correct that the state needs to take the time to do a comprehensive study of the health effects of fracking to protect the public health,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the state Petroleum Council, Karen Moreau, said her group, based on the assurances provided by Martens, was pleased that the delay in the health study would not create delays for issuing drilling permits. Predicting that the outcome will pave the way to fracking in New York, she said: “We also know that it can and must end with a decision to move forward with creating jobs in the Southern Tier.”
Ellen Pope, executive director of the environmental group Otsego 2000, said the Cuomo administration’s decision to extend the health study “is the responsible thing to do.”
“It allows more time for Dr. Shah and his experts to review the data that is coming to the surface,” said Pope, noting there are “troubling” indications that fracking is responsible for health problems detected in both livestock and people.
The health study was extended on the same day that a coalition of groups opposed to fracking put pressure on Cuomo by running an advertisement in a leading newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register. Iowa holds the nation’s first presidential caucus every four years, and the sponsors of the ad said they wanted to put Cuomo on notice that he faces major political risks if he approves fracking in New York.
“Gov. Cuomo, America is looking to you,” stated the ad, which concluded: “Your choice now will be remembered forever.”
Alan Chartock, a veteran Albany political observer and the chief executive officer of public radio station WAMC, said the ad was an effective way to remind Cuomo that any presidential ambitions he may hold could face consequences if he sides with the gas industry.
Further, he said, while Cuomo has denied he covets the presidency, the environmental groups, by taking the message to Iowa, were effectively responding “we don’t believe you.”
“I don’t think he knows what to do here,” Chartock observed. “He is in a vice between two competing sides. The last thing he will want to do is to alienate all these folks on the left because he needs them. They are his core constituency.”
State University at Oneonta political science professor Gina Keel said Cuomo, by repeatedly stating that science will determine whether his administration will issue shale gas permits, “has been playing it pretty cool on the fracking controversy.
“He’s been insulating himself from the politics of it, to some degree,” she said.
Among the scores of organizations listed in the Iowa ad were many local groups, including Otsego 2000, Advocates for Cherry Valley, Advocates for Morris, Middlefield Neighbors, Milford Doers/Residents of Crumhorn, Concerned Worcester Citizens, Friends of Sustainable Sidney, Friends of Butternuts, and Protect Laurens.