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Drilling moratorium likely

By Dan Hust
ALBANY — December 3, 2010 — With Governor David Paterson widely expected to sign it into law, a proposed moratorium on gas drilling involving hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) got the New York State Assembly’s blessing late Monday in Albany.
The Senate, including local NYS Senator John Bonacic, had already passed the measure in August. On Monday, the 93 Assembly members who voted in favor (compared to 43 who voted against) included Sullivan County’s Assemblywoman, Aileen Gunther.
“I think it’s going to give us enough time to really review the issues,” she told the Democrat on Wednesday.
But the moratorium, if signed by the governor, only lasts until May 15, 2011 and may expire even before the much-awaited rewrite of drilling rules is completed by the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“Do I think we still have a ways to go to look at this issue? I absolutely do,” Gunther acknowledged. “... I think there’s research that needs to happen.”
But some of that research – like the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s study of fracking – won’t be done by May 15.
And with drilling activity slower in winter, the moratorium may be more geared to letting the DEC reconstitute itself after the firing of Commissioner Pete Grannis, and the coming loss of 200 or so employees.
“With Pete Grannis gone, I really don’t know exactly what’s happening [with the DEC],” said Gunther. “... At this point, there’s really no leadership.”
But the practical effect of the moratorium may extend beyond state government.
“By signing this bill, Governor Paterson will cement his reputation as the first governor in the country to protect his citizens from the precipitous onslaught of dangerous and poorly regulated shale gas extraction,” Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy’s Bruce Ferguson wrote in an e-mailed announcement of the vote.
“The vote in the Assembly caps an incredible two weeks for those of us who have been working hard to combat the corporations that intend to turn our communities into sacrificial energy zones,” he added.
That lobbying effort included fellow Sullivan County-based Catskill Mountainkeeper.
“This is unquestionably a big step forward for us and for all those who are vitally concerned about fracking’s substantial risks to our water, air and health,” Mountainkeeper Program Director Wes Gillingham wrote in another e-mailed announcement. “It clearly shows the power of what grassroots organizations like Catskill Mountainkeeper can do against powerful, deep-pocketed forces such as the oil and gas industry.”
An industry spokesman acknowledged that the moratorium could hurt gas drilling efforts in the state.
“This bill is a job-killer, an upstate business-killer and potentially an industry-killer,” said Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which represents about 300 businesses involved in drilling. “The governor must be made to understand the vast unintended consequences and act quickly to reject this needless legislation.”
Gill added that the moratorium will shut down not just horizontal fracking but vertical fracking, as well – the latter of which has a longer safety record than the former.
“If signed into law, the bill would do unnecessary and perhaps irreparable harm to the state and existing industry operations, and jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of business owners and their employees,” he lamented. “The legislation also would undermine the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s ongoing review of the regulations governing natural gas exploration in New York.”
It seems clear the battle is far from over.
“This is only one step in a very long and hard fight,” Gillingham acknowledged, adding that both sides will be mobilizing their resources to influence Albany’s future decisions – including those of Paterson’s successor, Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo.

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