Lawmakers grill environmental regulators on fracking

Oct 7, 2011

About a dozen assembly members spent much of Thursday questioning top officials from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) at a public hearing on hydrofracking.

Lawmakers questioned whether the DEC is rushing the process, and relying on data from the natural gas drilling industry.

They were also concerned that the DEC and the state Department of Health might not have enough resources and staff to oversee potential threats to public health.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125th) expressed doubt that the DEC is fully examining health complaints related to fracking in Pennsylvania.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens told Lifton that he's talked with state officials and representatives from the gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania.

"So you talked to Chesapeake [Energy] and you talked to state officials, but you didn't talk to the residents who say that their health has been badly damaged?" said Lifton.

"No, I did not talk to the residents," Martens replied.

"But you're saying that we're gathering information. We're looking at other states, we're trying to figure out what's happened," said Lifton.

Later on in the hearing, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-95th) asked Martens if he has enough manpower at his agency to handle fracking.

"How can we feel comfortable that there would be the kind of  staff available to be able to provide that oversight?" asked Jaffee.

Martens acknowledged that he will need to add at least 140 new staff positions in the near future. He said he's currently working with his fracking advisory panel on the issue.

"We expect to come up with a slew of recommendations on how we would raise the money from the industry in order to pay for those positions. We haven't completed that process yet," Martens said.

Cuomo weighs in

At a press conference in another part of the Capitol, Governor Andrew Cuomo made fracking sound like it's still a hypothetical option for the state, even though drilling permits will likely be issued as early as next year.

But he insists that the state will provide the money to do it properly.

"If [we were] gonna do fracking, and if [the DEC] report comes out that says that we're gonna do fracking, then will [we] put in place the resources and safeguards we need to do fracking? Of course," said Cuomo.

The DEC is holding a series of public forums on fracking next month, and will accept public comments on its proposed drilling regulations until December 12th.