There’s no timeline for a decision on whether fracking of shale gas wells will be allowed in New York state, but the review will likely continue through the summer, the state’s top environmental regulator told business leaders Thursday.
Speaking at a conference held by the Business Council in Albany on Thursday, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said the agency doesn’t have a specific date yet for an update on the environmental review and proposed regulations for high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale gas wells.
New York hasn’t issued permits for shale gas wells using horizontal drilling and fracking since it began its review of the technology in 2008. Meanwhile, thousands of shale gas wells have been drilled and fracked in Pennsylvania and other states in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale region. The technology frees gas trapped in shale by injecting a well bore with millions of gallons of chemically treated water at high pressure.
“It’s a very long and tedious process” to review and respond to the 66,700 comments submitted on the DEC’s 1,500-page environmental impact study, Martens said. Martens and his executive staff must also review the agency’s responses and sign off on them and make revisions to the study, he said.
“We hope over the course of the summer, perhaps we’ll complete the process,” Martens said.
Martens also talked about the agency’s overhaul of the environmental quality review process businesses have to go through before other types of development can go forward. He said the changes would be modest and would be designed to make reviews more efficient without sacrificing environmental protection.
Among the proposed changes are new environmental assessment forms with online access, encouraging growth in urban areas, and setting maximum time frames and end points for reviews.
DEC has held six meetings around the state to get ideas from business leaders on how to cut the red tape. Two more are planned.
Jack Nasca, director of DEC’s environmental permits division, said a draft of the new State Environmental Quality Review rules is expected to be presented for public comment in August or September, with final adoption around February 2013.
After Martens spoke, a panel of lawyers talked about the growing number of communities that have banned or placed moratoriums on shale gas drilling, and the resulting lawsuits against two of those towns — Dryden in Tompkins County and Middlefield in Otsego County. In both cases, local state judges upheld the bans.
Albany attorney Tom West said he’s handling a combined appeal of the cases to the mid-level Appellate Division of state Supreme Court. The case will likely be heard in the fall and a decision issued around November, he said.
Linda Shaw, a Rochester lawyer representing the town of Dryden, said she’s prepared to take the case to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, if necessary.
The lower court rulings were seen as victories for local “home rule” and a blow to the industry and lease-holding landowners. “If these two rulings stand it’s the kiss of death for gas drilling in New York,” West said Thursday. “You could spend $100 million for lease rights, only to be at the mercy of a 3-2 town board vote.”
West argued that state environmental law clearly states that local zoning is trumped by state regulations when it comes to oil and gas drilling.
Shaw said the courts agreed that while state law doesn’t allow localities to regulate drilling, that doesn’t mean they can’t adopt zoning laws to prevent drilling.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.