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Env. Comm. Says Local Opposition Will be a Factor in Future Fracking Permits

State DEC Commissioner Joe Martens
State DEC Commissioner Joe Martens

Earth Day came and went in New York  without too much discussion of what many environmentalists believe to be the biggest issue facing the state- when and where the gas drilling process known as hydro fracking will  occur.

The future of fracking has been stalled in New York for several months now, as the State Department of Environmental Conservation plows through what  Commissioner Joe Martens  says is a “mountain” of over  60,000 public comments, collected during an environmental review.

“The focus now is on the comments and its monumental,” Martens said.

The commissioner says 50 DEC staffers are working full time looking at all of the public statements.

At this time last year, the state seemed on a fast track to allow fracking to go forward. But natural gas prices have plummeted, and opposition to the practice has widened.  There’s been increasing signs that the state might more slowly phase in the permitting of new gas wells, with preference going to communities or regions of the state that are more receptive to hydro fracking.

The commissioner says if the majority of a community does not want fracking to occur, it will be an “important”  factor when it’s time to move forward.

“That’s a powerful consideration,” said Marten. “Consistency with local laws is important.”

“That may be a consideration for saying ‘no, we’re not going to allow it here’,” Martens said.

Dozens of communities in the Marcellus Shale region across New York have already voted to ban fracking.

There have been further indications that the process to allow fracking has slowed down. There was no money in the state budget to hire new staff to issue permits. Currently there are only 16 workers authorized to so, when it’s estimated that at least 100 would be needed if the full permitting goes forward.

An advisory committee tasked with setting taxes and fees for the gas industry has not met in months, though the commissioner says they do plan to hold a meeting sometime soon.

As part of Earth Day activities at the Capitol, Democrats who are in the minority party in the Senate, held a hearing. Most who testified, were against the practice. Senator Tony Avella, a Democrat from Queens, co- chaired the hearing.

“I don’t believe we should be doing hydrofracking, period,” said Avella ,to cheers from the audience.

The State Assembly, led by Democrats, passed a package of one house bills for Earth Day, including requiring private drinking wells to be tested before fracking occurs,  and to classify fracking wastewater  as hazardous waste.  Currently, the DEC plans to regard it on the same level as medical waste.

Senate Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo area Republican, is not advocating for a ban, but he says he “shares many of the concerns” about the gas drilling process.

Senator Grisanti also wants to classify fracking waste water as hazardous, and ban public water treatment plants from accepting the waste water. And he says he supports legislation to prevent the fracking waste water to be spread on roads for dust control or as deicing salt.

The Senate did not vote on any fracking bills. Several GOP Senators support going ahead with fracking in some capacity.

Governor Cuomo, who has handed over all public comments about fracking to his DEC Commissioner , says  he’ still waiting for all the facts to come out from the environmental review process.  The governor, asked about the issue on the earth day lobby day, says he’s listening to arguments from both sides, including supporters, who say it would create jobs.

“It is a job generator, there’s no doubt about that,” Cuomo said. “The question is can you generate the jobs and do it safely and protect people and protect the environment. That’s what you’re trying to work through there.”

Cuomo’s Environmental Commissioner Martens is reluctant to offer a firm date on when fracking could begin in New York, but he does say it’s not likely that there will be any more public hearings.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.