Explainer: When could hydrofracking actually begin?

Jun 6, 2011

The saga of New York's complicated relationship with natural gas drilling continues this week in Albany, as the Assembly takes steps to put off drilling for another year.

The key issue in the Marcellus Shale debate is the controversial drilling technique called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which pumps pressurized water and chemicals into the ground.

Environmentalists say fracking is dangerous and can contaminate groundwater, and that the discharge from the process can wind up at municipal water treatment plants, not equipped to handle it.

Advocates of drilling argue the technique is safe, and that New York shouldn't postpone tapping into what amounts to a huge domestic energy reserve.

But the debate isn't just about if drilling will happen here, it's also about when - and who will control the timeline.

There's currently a moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking, put in place by former Governor David Paterson during his last days in office. That's set to expire on July 1, 2011.

But as the Innovation Trail's Emma Jacobs reported last month, that July 1 date is actually moot. Fracking is still likely a year away, because the rules to regulate it are still being prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

The DEC has been charged with conducting an environmental review and drafting guidelines to regulate the use of fracking. That review, also known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), was supposed to be completed by June 1. Having missed that deadline, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive to the DEC saying he wants it ready in less than a month. And Jon Campbell at Gannett notes that has some advocates pleased - and others miffed:

The move enacted a firm deadline for the first time, and it gave the gas industry a glimmer of hope that the process is moving ahead. Some environmentalists said they weren't pleased with the new deadline, urging the Cuomo administration not to place any time limits on the nearly three-year-old review process.

Moving up the due date for that report would allow the public comment process, which usually takes anywhere from 30 to 90 days, to get underway. Those comments would then be incorporated into yet another version of the drilling rules (remember, we're already on version two), to be released later this year, or in 2012.

But some members of the Assembly think that's too soon, and they want to delay drilling even further. Today they took up a bill that would extend New York's temporary moratorium on fracking until June 2012.  

Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) co-sponsored the bill. He's holding a press conference about the issue this afternoon.

Stay tuned to the Innovation Trail for an update later today, and if you're curious, you can check out the DEC's FAQ on the fracking regulatory process.