ALBANY, N.Y. — New York's environment commissioner told lawmakers Tuesday that the proposed state budget doesn't include money for regulating hydraulic fracturing because it's uncertain when — or if — the natural gas drilling technology will be allowed in the state.
Commissioner Joe Martens said at a legislative budget hearing that the Department of Environmental Conservation has almost 60 staffers working to review and respond to about 61,000 public comments submitted on the agency's environmental review and proposed regulations for "fracking" in the Marcellus Shale. The state hasn't allowed the controversial technology since the review started in 2008.
When Assemblyman Robert Sweeney asked whether the lack of any budget allocation for regulating shale gas drilling means no permits will be issued during the fiscal year that starts April 1, Martens said "It's a bit theoretical at this point."
"It's not a fait accompli that we will have a regulatory framework in place that will allow drilling to go forward this year," Martens said. "It's also possible we could complete the process and that we could entertain applications," using existing staff.
The industry and landowners with gas leases have been urging DEC to wrap up its review and start granting permits, while environmental groups have called for a more extensive review and more rigorous protections to prevent problems seen in other states, such as water contamination. Some groups are calling for an outright ban, saying accidents in other states show regulation is ineffective.
Sweeney, a Long Island Democrat, has sponsored a bill calling for a moratorium on fracking until June 2013 to allow more time for study. Another bill in the Senate and Assembly would ban the practice.
The industry says multiple well casings and thousands of feet of rock above the shale formation protect aquifers from contamination by fracking, which stimulates gas production by blasting millions of gallons of chemically treated water into a well drilled horizontally through shale about a mile underground.
Martens said if Marcellus gas development is allowed to go forward, the agency would need 140 new staffers to regulate the industry initially and possibly more than 200 by the fifth year.
An 18-member advisory panel appointed by Martens to determine what additional staffing resources DEC and other state and local agencies will need to oversee hydraulic fracturing has been on hiatus since December. Martens said the panel's work is on hold while the regulatory program is being developed.
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a Democrat from Ithaca, raised the issue of home rule, noting that many towns have enacted bans or moratoriums on gas drilling. Martens said the Environmental Conservation Law clearly says that state law supersedes local regulations regarding oil and gas drilling, but there are court challenges under way.
"When and if we review an application, we will ask the question of whether this is consistent with local laws, rules and regulations," Martens said. "Theoretically, we could modify or deny an application for drilling based on inconsistency with local rules."