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Fracking Ban: Future of Upstate New York Decided in 90 Days

The oil and gas industry, and environmental advocates will have to hold their breath a little longer. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration has kicked the can down the road once again regarding a decision four years in the making: whether to lift a moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Currently the rock formation known as Marcellus shale — which extends from north central New York west to Ohio, and also south to the border between Virginia and West Virginia — is safe from drilling due to a moratorium passed by the New York state legislature in 2010. Environmental regulations have actually been in the making since 2008, and were due on November 29, 2012.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) filed a Notice of Continuation with the Department of State to extend the rule making process by 90 days in order to give the New York State Commissioner of Health a review of the draft "Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement."

This appears to be a positive step since questions had been raised amongst environmentalists regarding the impartiality of the regulation process, and the influence of non-government reviewers deciding on the potential health effects.

Additionally in September, the DEC commissioner rejected calls for an "independent" health study of fracking. As a result of not completing their final impact statement on time, the DEC is forced to initiate another public comment period on the issue, available here, for the next 30 days. The first DEC public comment period of 60 days yielded over 80,000 comments.

Legal issues have also recently been brought to the foreground after more than 30 upstate New York municipalities passed bans on gas drilling. More than 80 enacted moratoriums, either out of fear that the state will lift the moratorium, or to further emphasize their commitment to safe drinking water. Many of these laws have been struck down in court. Most recently a state Supreme Court Justice upheld the general legality of fracking due to lack of specific health implications directly concerning the small city.

In April 2009, the United States Department of Energy estimated the Marcellus formation to contain 262 trillion cubin feet (TCF) of recoverable gas, or by some estimates, enough to meet the country's natural gas needs for two years. Other academics at the University of Pennsylvania have projected as much as 1,307 TCF with merely a 30% recovery rate.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania and Ohio credited natural gas drilling on the Marcellus shale, beginning in 2008, as a important source for local jobs and economic growth. Ohio, for example, is projecting $5 billion in additional economic output from fracking by 2014.

The difficulty in nailing down environmental regulations has spurred environmental advocates in the state of Maryland to take a more preemptive approach against fracking.

Last weekend the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, NAACP, and Physicians for Social Responsibility and Environment Maryland convened to hold "Drilling Down: a Conference on Fracking Risks and Actions in MD."

The conference was held to educate on the dangers of the natural gas extraction process — which has been linked to drinking water contamination, water use, climate pollution, and even earthquakes in Maryland's neighboring states. The attendees also hoped to pursue a potential state-wide ban on drilling.

The size of the Marcellus shale formations in Maryland pale in comparison to New York's reserves. Maryland has only two far western counties laying on top of the potential gas reserves. 

One thing is for sure. When the New York State DEC finally releases the regulations, no drilling will be allowed on state-owned land, including state forest and wildlife management areas. Regulations also should continue to include a ban on high-volume fracturing in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

If nothing is changed from the 2009 recommendation, approximately 85% of the Marcellus shale would be accessible to natural gas extraction.

Stay tuned for developments in the next 90 days. 

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