N.Y. May Issue Fracking Permits Without Final Regulations

New York said it will begin issuing fracking permits before creating regulations if the state Health Department says the natural-gas drilling technique is safe.

The decision announced today by Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens may enable the state to grant hydraulic-fracturing permits within weeks, rather than months.

New York has been studying whether to allow fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation for more than four years. Martens’s decision marks a policy shift that may let the state expedite drilling by circumventing a lengthy rule-making process. The commissioner said he’ll do that if the Health Department gives assurances on safety issues.

“The science, not emotion, will determine the outcome,” Martens said in an e-mail statement.

Fracking, a process in which a mixture of water and chemicals is injected into shale to free trapped gas, poses a dilemma for Governor Andrew Cuomo. The 55-year-old Democrat must balance the prospect of the type of economic development seen in Ohio and Pennsylvania against calls from environmental groups that say drilling will damage drinking water supplies and make farmland unusable.

‘Fierce Opposition’

The state can move forward with issuing permits as soon as an environmental review is complete, and that hinges on the Health Department’s determination, Martens said. Recommendations from the environmental review would be enforced through the permit process, he said.

If the state issues permits without formal rules, it “will be met with fierce opposition,” Roger Downs, conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, said in an e-mailed statement.

“We trust that the DEC will take this opportunity to re-evaluate the legality of using an environmental-review process as a de facto regulatory program,” Downs said.

The continuing health analysis will cause the state to miss a Feb. 27 deadline for formal regulations and reopen a 90-day public review, Martens and Health Commissioner Nirav Shah said in statements e-mailed today.

“Given the DEC commissioner’s assurances that this delay will not mean delays for issuing permits, we respect the administration’s need to finish this last study and finally come to a resolution,” Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said in an e-mailed statement. “We also know that it can and must end with a decision to move forward with creating jobs.