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Source: Utica Observer-Dispatch

Paterson vetoes natural gas drilling moratorium

But prohibits hydrofracking until at least July


Posted: December 16, 2010
Originally Published: December 11, 2010

After months of debate, Gov. David Paterson on Saturday issued an executive order prohibiting the high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing process of drilling for natural gas until at least July 1.

But the outgoing Democratic governor also vetoed a bill that would have suspended all new natural-gas and oil drilling permits in the state for five months.

Paterson’s move balances environmentalists’ worries about the potential harmful effects of the drilling on groundwater, and industry groups who said the moratorium would have hurt business and the state’s economy.

“We in government must always focus on protecting the well-being of those whom we represent and serve, but we also have an obligation to look to the future and protect the long-term interests for our state and its residents,” Paterson said in a news release. “Therefore, I am proud to issue this executive order, which will guarantee that before any high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing is permitted, the Department of Environmental Conservation will complete its studies and certify that such operations are safe.”

The process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking, involves mixing millions of gallons of water with other chemicals and then pumping the mixture down wells to create fractures in the rock and allow natural gas from the rocks to be obtained.

Companies in the industry plan to combine hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling to tap into natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation located beneath the earth’s surface between Appalachia and Central New York. The area includes several counties just south of Oneida and Herkimer counties.

Prior to Paterson’s decision Saturday, some said signing the state legislation would have negatively affected thousands of jobs and hurt economic development in the state.

But others said vetoing the bill would allow rushed approval of drilling techniques that, without proper regulation, could harm the environment and pollute drinking supplies.

The governor said the proposed moratorium was “principally symbolic” and would have negatively affected the state’s struggling economy.

“I cannot agree to put individuals out of work for a symbolic act,” he said in the release.

Before making his decision, Paterson reviewed the bill, talked to experts and listened to public comments, Paterson spokeswoman Jessica Bassett said late last week.

“There’s been an overwhelming constituent response from interested New Yorkers on both sides of the issue,” Bassett said.

The state Assembly voted 93-43 on Nov. 29 to approve the moratorium through May 15. The Senate passed its version of the bill in August.

Mixed messages

Norwich resident Steven Palmatier owns land where wells have been drilled and other land with the potential for drilling. He also is a consultant on the issue for Chenango County and has spent more than 150 hours at seminars and training sessions about the topic, he said.

Palmatier believes the regulatory decisions should be left in the hands of the state DEC — which is reviewing the procedure — and said prior to Paterson’s decision that the moratorium would have sent a message to companies in the industry that their investments in New York state aren’t safe.

“It is a horrible thing for our state to do,” he said.

William Cooke, director of government relations for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said his group would have liked the full moratorium to pass, but was pleased with Paterson’s final decision, regardless.

“We’re looking at this as a victory,” Cooke said. “We wanted him to sign the bill. He didn’t sign the bill … but he did an executive order moratorium that gets us to July, and that is a response to hearing from thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who are more than concerned about what this technology has the ability to do to our drinking water.”

Cooke said a “timeout” was needed for both vertical and horizontal drilling because of the volume of water being used and concerns about the chemicals added to it during the hydrofracking process. He said his group will ask Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo to extend Paterson’s moratorium after he takes office in January.

The debate

Opponents of the moratorium legislation said the problem with the bill Paterson vetoed was that it limited not only the newer procedure of horizontal drilling, but also hydraulic fracturing for vertical wells.

Paterson’s executive order affects only high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, which already was effectively delayed by the DEC’s procedural review.

About 90 percent of vertical wells in the state use hydraulic fracturing, a process that became common in the state 60 years ago, said Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York.

Smith said vetoing the bill was the right decision because, as worded, it would have affected “types of drilling that have been going on in New York for decades” and hurt 300 companies employing a total of about 5,000 people.

“The delay will prevent the expansion of the industry in New York, but the veto of the moratorium means that those companies who were planning to drill vertically and frack those vertical wells can now breathe a sigh of relief,” he said.

He added that the DEC has been evaluating hydofracking and horizontal drilling for nearly three years and has received tens of thousands of comments from all sides on its draft regulations.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the DEC is doing a very thorough job,” he said. “We hope that what comes out of it are reasonable, achievable regulations.”

State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Lindenhurst, was the primary sponsor of the bill and is the chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.

Sweeney previously acknowledged the legislation affected both vertical and horizontal wells, but he said there were some instances of problems even with vertical wells, and the health of New Yorkers has to be the first priority.

Local legislators

State Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, previously said she believed the bill was flawed because it affected vertical wells as well as the horizontal wells. But, faced with a decision on the bill as a whole, she voted for the moratorium to provide more time for the review process.

“Protecting the health and safety of the people was first and foremost on my mind and the quality of the water,” Destito said.

State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, said Saturday that Paterson’s reasons for vetoing the bill mirrored the concerns that led him to vote against it earlier this year.

“I think we can grow the economy and preserve the environment; they don’t have to be polar opposites,” Griffo said. “And I think in this particular instance, what (Paterson) is saying is what I had indicated earlier – we need to wait for the experts.”

He added that he hopes the DEC finishes its study in “an expeditious way” so that legislators will have the guidance they need to balance economic interests against environmental concerns.

“We have an opportunity here to help ourselves economically,” Griffo said. “But we also have to make sure we’re doing everything to protect the watershed.”

Contributing: The Associated Press