Wait game continues in New York over hydrofracking

June 27, 2013 Updated Jun 27, 2013 at 9:22 AM EDT

By David Bertola, Buffalo Business First

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Wait game continues in New York over hydrofracking

June 27, 2013 Updated Jun 27, 2013 at 9:22 AM EDT

Referring to the challenges of natural gas development as manageable and the benefits too great to ignore, Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York wants state leaders to take note of President Barack Obama's recent comments about how natural gas is driving climate change.

"Today, we produce more natural gas than anybody else," Obama said on June 25 at Georgetown University. "So we're producing energy. And these advances have grown our economy, they've created new jobs, they can't be shipped overseas. And, by the way, they've also helped drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years. Since 2006, no country on Earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States of America."

Many states including Ohio and Pennsylvania use a hydraulic fracturing (or hydrofracking) process, where sand, chemicals and water are pumped into the shale formation. Doing so fractures the shale and releases the gas.

to drill for natural gas through shale formations. However, New York does not drill the Marcellus Shale formation that runs beneath it and other eastern states.

"The president and his administration have clearly concluded that safe, innovative, modern domestic energy production is in the best interest of the national economy and the environment, and that natural gas is the best option for transitioning to increased use of renewable energy sources," said Brad Gill, executive director of Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. "This is a message that many other states have heard. New York must finally accept the truth about modern, safe natural gas development: the challenges are manageable and the benefits are too great to ignore."

After a four-and-a-half year wait, it seemed in February the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was ready to unveil regulations for drilling the Marcellus Shale formation for natural gas throughout the state.

But those regulations still aren't in place, and there's no indication if or when they will be.

On May 1, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's cabinet meeting, New York Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah said that his public health review was ongoing, and "like aiming at a moving target."

Shah said he wanted to make sure he gives DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens the best review possible.

"My plan is to continue to work on this until I'm comformtable that we have a good review," said Shah, who then was immediately asked when the review would be complete.

His reply: "No timetable."

The DEC had a Feb. 13 deadline to complete its environmental-impact study for drilling natural gas using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.

However, Martens said then that he was awaiting Shah's public health review, which was initiated in September to look deeper into the DEC's supplemental generic environmental-impact statement for high-volume hydrofracking and determine whether additional mitigation measures are needed.

In a Feb. 12 letter to Martens, Shah cited three studies - including two being conducted in Pennsylvania - that analyze health impacts of high-volume hydrofracking. On March 11, Shah told Cuomo his recommendation was weeks away. But on May 7, reiterating what Shah shared at the cabinet meeting, a Department of Health spokesman told Business First that the Public Health Review is incomplete, and moving forward.

"To help inform the review, Commissioner Shah is working with three highly qualified, external public-health experts and has met with Environmental Protection Agency officials and the Marcellus Research Institute in Pennsylvania about their studies," he said.

Gill sees Shah's meeting with the EPA as a good sign for his industry.

"Repeated statements and findings by the EPA through the years have given the oil and natural gas industry a clean bill of health, as they've found no evidence of water contamination due to hydrofracking," Gill said.

Among three ongoing studies Shah is keeping an eye on is one from University of Pennsylvania. A component of it is a pilot study with 72 adults from hydrofracking-heavy Bradford County, Pa. Among them, 22 percent consider natural gas operations to have contributed to sinus irritation, gastrointestinal problems and sleep deprivation.

Dr. Trevor Penning, director of Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at University at Pennsylvania, said that for the pilot, data has been collected but has yet to be analyzed, so it isn't yet known if a correlation exists between hydrofracking and sickness.

Penning said that while numbers appear small, reported symptoms indicate that more needs to be learned about residents' health. Beyond the pilot, the study will compare private drinking well water quality in areas where hydrofracking is taking place to areas where it is not. Another will use health insurance information prior to and after hydrofracking.

He said data collection began for these other two parts began in Feburary, and could take up to 18 months to complete.

In a March 11 Associated Press article, Cuomo said New York wasn't waiting for these studies to be completed to create regulations.

Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser for American Petroleum Institute, said that New York could have employed Ohio's or Pennsylvania's regulations, rather than start from scratch.

"It's a shame New York is taking so long to decide what they want to do," Dougher said. "New York should just look over the border. How many hundreds of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars have been made in Pennsylvania? New York is sitting on its hands, but can learn a lesson from Pennsylvania."

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