Rulemaking will likely delay NY gas drilling plans

ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York regulators expect to reopen their rulemaking process for natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing, casting doubt on whether a 4-year-old moratorium on development will be lifted before next year.

Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said Sunday the agency expects to miss a Nov. 29 deadline for finalizing regulations, making it necessary to reopen the process with at least one public hearing.

DeSantis said it remains "undetermined" whether an overall environmental study can be completed and permits issued while the agency revisits the regulations. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens had said last year that the agency would issue permits if the environmental review was completed before the regulations are adopted.

Martens announced recently that a final decision on whether to allow shale development also would not be made until Health Commissioner Narav Shah completes a health impact review.

While thousands of shale gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania and other states, developers in New York have met intense opposition. Numerous health and environmental groups have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The technology, which made it economically feasible to extract vast quantities of gas from underground rock, injects millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into wells to crack the shale and free the gas.

The possibility of further delay of fracking "is encouraging news, and suggests that they are not intending to inappropriately rush the health study," said Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Oil and gas industry representatives have said they don't expect a drilling rush to begin quickly in New York even if the moratorium is lifted by the end of this year, because the price of gas has been driven to the lowest level in a decade by a glut of gas from fracking in other states.

Cuomo and Martens have refused to give a definite timeline for completion of an environmental review and new regulations or for a decision on whether the state will allow fracking. But they have said since last spring that resolution of the issue would be a matter of months, or by summer's end. Martens said the process has been slow because the agency must review and respond to about 80,000 public comments.

DEC proposed formal regulations for gas drilling last year and held the last of four public hearings on the regulations on Nov. 30. Under state law, DEC has one year after the last public hearing to finalize the regulations, although it can file for a 90-day extension. If it misses the Nov. 29 deadline, the rulemaking process restarts, including a new comment period.