Cuomo's new plan for hydrofracking: Taking a page from the NRDC?

In today's New York Times, reporter Danny Hakim writes that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration is quietly pursuing an entirely new plan to regulate hydraulic fracturing.

Anonymous sources, including a senior Department of Environmental Conservation official, told the New York Times that Cuomo is seeking to limit the practice to areas where the Marcellus Shale formation is deepest, along the New York/Pennsylvania border.

Towns would also have to agree to permit hydraulic fracturing within their borders:

Even within that southwest New York region — primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties — drilling would be permitted only in towns that agree to it, and would be banned in Catskill Park, aquifers and nationally designated historic districts.

From the New York Times's map showing areas where the Marcellus Shale is deepest, it appears that parts of Delaware and Sullivan County would also be in the allowed zone, although Catskill Park and the New York City watershed would make much of the Catskills region off-limits for drilling.

The new plan, if enacted, would introduce a new twist in the evolving legal landscape of home rule in New York State. Whether towns have the legal right to enact bans against gas drilling has been the subject of intense debate, two highly-publicized lawsuits and some proposed legislation over the last several years.

It's possible that Cuomo is taking some advice from a national environmental group. Longtime gas drilling reporter Tom Wilber, who blogs about the issue at Shale Gas Review, draws a possible link between Cuomo's plan and a memo sent to state officials in January by the Natural Resources Defense Council:

The NRDC memo asked regulators to consider a three-year demonstration project in several “geographically limited areas.” Depending on the outcome, the state could then decide whether to “advance further a broader HVHF (High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing) program.” The memo was signed by NRDC senior attorneys Eric Goldstein and Kate Sinding, and consultant Craig Michaels. The NRDC proposal was a response to the DEC’s environmental review – called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement -- evaluating shale gas development and fracking.

Wilber notes that the New York Times story did not explicitly link the two, but writes that the Cuomo plan as Hakim describes it "squares with the NRDC recommendations."

The NRDC memo has taken heat from grassroots anti-fracking activists in New York State, Wilber writes:

..the NRDC proposal has drawn criticism from activists, who argue that if drilling is unsafe in one watershed, it’s unsafe in others. Sandra Steingraber, founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, characterize the places where drilling will be permitted on a trial basis as “sacrifice zones.”