To drill or not to drill: New York gas regs delayed again

New York State is slated to miss a key Wednesday deadline in the long march toward issuing regulations on hydrofracking.

State health commissioner Nirav Shah announced Tuesday, in a letter to Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner Joseph Martens, that his agency's ongoing review of the effects of hydrofracking on human health would not be finished by its Wednesday due date. Several large-scale studies, including a progress report from an ongoing EPA study of hydrofracking's effects on drinking water, have been released recently, and Shah told Martens that his agency needed time to incorporate them into the review.

In the letter, Shah urged Martens to put the brakes on fracking regulations until the Department of Health (DOH) finishes its review:

The time to ensure the impacts on public health are properly considered is before a state permits drilling. Other states began serious health reviews only after proceeding with widespread HVHF [high volume hydraulic fracturing].

In my view, that is not the right approach for New York to take if we are serious that public health is the paramount question in making the HVHF decision. And as Health Commissioner, protecting the public health is my primary job.

The DEC officially has until February 27 to issue the hydrofracking regulations. To meet that federal deadline, the DEC must issue an enviromental review document -- the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS -- on Wednesday. Until the health review is complete, the DEC will not issue the SGEIS.

If the DEC misses the February 27 deadline, their proposed regulations will be required to be subject to yet another public comment period, a process that could take months.

But even without the regulations officially completed, the DEC could begin issuing permits sooner, Martens wrote in a response to Shah's letter:

The previously proposed high-volume hydraulic fracturing regulations cannot be finalized until the SGEIS is complete. However, this does not mean that the issuance of permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing would be delayed. If the DOH Public Health Review finds that the SGEIS has adequately addressed health concerns, and I adopt the SGEIS on that basis, DEC can accept and process high-volume hydraulic fracturing permit applications 10 days after issuance of the SGEIS. The regulations simply codify the program requirements.

If, on the other hand, the DOH review finds that there is a public health concern that has not been assessed in the SGEIS or properly mitigated, we would not proceed, as I have stated in the past.

In either event, the science, not emotion, will determine the outcome.

New York Times reporter Danny Hakim, who has in the past been privy to some of the Cuomo administration's unofficial plans for gas drilling, suggests that the issue is being driven by a higher force than either science or emotion: Politics.

...Officials who have discussed the matter with the governor have said that his hesitation is principally political, not scientific. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, faces strident opposition on his party’s left, and activists are continually protesting in Albany against fracking.

On the other hand, the governor has said that economic development is a priority, even as the state’s unemployment rate has fallen behind the national average during his time in office.

Unable to satisfy either side on a bitterly divisive issue, Hakim writes, Cuomo has become "Hamlet on the Shale," drawing out the process in order to delay a decision that is sure to be politically costly no matter what the outcome.

More coverage of the Department of Health's announcement on Tuesday: 

Politics on the Hudson: Health review needs “additional time”; Fracking deadline expected to be missed

Times-Union's Capitol Confidential blog: Shah: Fracking health review needs time

Times-Union: Drill study needs time

Associated Press: NY health chief: Longer gas drilling study needed