Governor Paterson Calls for New Environmental Review of Fracking, But Cuomo Must Take the Time to Get it Right

More details were revealed today on Governor Paterson's mixed-bag fracking Executive Order, which was announced Saturday and created a partial moratorium on hydraulic fracturing upstate in lieu of signing a full moratorium that had overwhelmingly passed the Legislature. Today, Paterson revealed the Executive Order also requires the state environmental agency to prepare a new assessment of the environmental impacts of proposed fracking upstate before it makes a decision on whether to allow any drills to break ground.

This is extremely welcome news for all of us who have been calling for the state to throw out a draft environmental impact statement issued by the agency last fall and start over because it is fatally flawed.  And it confirms the governor's earlier statements that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) would not move to finalize plans to allow controversial new drilling to begin on his watch.

By calling for the new environmental review and giving the public another chance to share their comments, the governor is acknowledging that the people raised real concerns about the initial assessment - so much so that the state needs to go through essentially an entirely new review process.

But, as with Saturday's announcement, the new executive order is not without its limitations. First, the Governor indicates that DEC should issue a revised draft environmental review "on or around June 1, 2011." For anyone who has been following the dire staffing and budgetary cuts at DEC over the past several years, it is evident that an additional six months is nowhere near sufficient to generate a satisfactory new review. The state needs enough time to get it right this time – to fully consider the range of serious environmental and health threats associated with the risky new industrial activity that would take place, literally, in our backyards.

Add to that the reality that it will take time for the new gubernatorial administration to come up to speed on the issues - and to take a fresh look at them - and it is apparent a June 2011 deadline is not realistic.

Further, in his announcement today the Governor seems to indicate that the state would not issue a new, comprehensive set of formal regulations for big oil and gas corporations to follow, but continue to regulate gas drilling in the state by permit. This does not provide enough security for New Yorkers or require enough accountability from the oil and gas corporations. It is critical that the state follows the environmental review process with a formal rulemaking process that will put in place a single set of comprehensive safeguards that apply to all new drilling in the state.  Without this, landowners and communities cannot effectively evaluate what rules big gas companies knocking on their doors will have to follow. And no one will know if they’re playing by those rules, or if DEC's enforcing them.

We’re already counting on Governor-elect Cuomo to extend the moratorium to make it a full temporary ban on fracking, instead of only a partial ban. As I explained in my last post – that means a time out for drilling any new gas wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations (whether they are drilled vertically or horizontally, which are both problematic), not just some.

Following today’s news, we’re also calling on Mr. Cuomo to make absolutely clear that (1) he will not be held to any particular timeframe for issuing a new draft environmental review for fracking, but rather will take the time it requires to ensure that all the risks have been fully and properly evaluated, and (2) he will require the creation of formal, enforceable new rules that oil and gas corporations must follow across the board in order to ensure they’re operating safely.

As we have long said, all eyes are on New York to set the national model for safe gas drilling. Governor Cuomo must use this opportunity to show the rest of the country they have a right to stand up to these powerful outsiders and say: you won’t be allowed to storm into our communities and jeopardize our health, our safe drinking water or our environment. New Yorkers don’t want big oil and gas corporations drilling in our backyards unless they can prove it's safe.