By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Supporters and opponents of hydraulic fracturing are gearing up for what could be the public's last chance to be heard on the state's review of shale-gas drilling.
Thousands of responses are expected during a public-comment period as the state Department of Environmental Conservation works toward making a final decision on large-scale hydrofracking before an end-of-February rule-making deadline.
Beginning Wednesday, comments on the DEC's latest set of proposed fracking regulations will be accepted through Jan. 11.
While the DEC has sought to quell concerns by assuring fracking critics that a final decision on the extraction process hasn't been made, Commissioner Joseph Martens insists the current proposals -- which would permit the technique with various limitations and prohibitions -- are still relevant.
"If you read them, they're relevant," Martens told Gannett's Albany Bureau last week. "We took 60,000 comments in the last round (of proposals) and many of those comments were reflected in the latest round as a result of all of those comments we got."
The newly proposed rules -- unveiled late last month as part of a legal maneuver that postponed a Nov. 29 deadline for 90 days -- have come under criticism from both sides of the contentious hydrofracking debate.
Environmentalists and opponents have knocked the state for releasing them prior to the completion of a review by the state Department of Health, while some industry groups have said they are too restrictive and could hinder development.
Others have criticized the DEC for being opaque. The agency's 2011 proposed regulations were swept from its website when the new proposals were unveiled, and the DEC hasn't provided a summary of changes that were made. (DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the 2011 regulations are "available upon request.")
On Monday, the chairmen of three Assembly committees sent a letter to Martens, urging him to withdraw the latest proposals until the health review is completed. Short of that, the lawmakers -- Democratic Assemblymen Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, Robert Sweeney of Suffolk County and Charles Lavine of Nassau County -- said the DEC should double the comment period to 60 days.
"The current comment period -- the mere minimum required by law -- is insufficient, given the sheer size of the regulations, the numerous revisions and the complexity of the issues," they wrote.
Sweeney said the state Assembly plans on holding a public hearing on the regulations and submitting the testimony to the DEC.
Gas-drilling proponents, meanwhile, have taken the recent actions by the state as a sign of hope. While the group is still reviewing the proposed regulations, an attorney for the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York said it is encouraged by the DEC's movement.
"The Joint Landowners Coalition will submit detailed and substantive comments about the regulations," said Scott Kurkoski, the attorney. "We're happy that the process will be moving forward."
The new rules did make several changes and tweaks to the DEC's 2011 proposals. Several "buffer zones" where drilling would be prohibited were increased. That includes the setback from homes and other dwellings, which was bumped up to 500 feet.
A $2 million cap on bonding for gas drillers was also lifted, while the language and style of the rules was also tightened in some areas, expanded in others and changed completely in some places.
Two previous comment periods on various parts of the state's review of hydrofracking garnered upwards of 80,000 responses. An environmental impact statement -- known as the SGEIS -- has to be finalized before any permits for large-scale fracking can be issued. The state faces no deadline for completing that document.
Environmental groups held comment-writing campaigns during the previous public sessions, submitting about a dozen boxes of material earlier this year. This time, some groups are even considering purchasing airtime to advertise their efforts.
"I think if we're not in that arena, we're missing an opportunity," said Doug Wood, associate director of Grassroots Environmental Education. "That being said, it's enormously expensive. We have to spend our money carefully. I think we probably will be on the air but at this point I can't tell you any more than that."
Wood said the DEC's proposals are insufficient and fail to do enough to deal with the waste and drill cuttings produced during the fracking process, some of which contains a level of radiation.
He took issue with the DEC putting forth rules before the health review is completed, but said he'll be encouraging everyone to submit comments to the state because it could be their last chance.
"We think the process is completely flawed, but it may be the only chance we have to be heard and we can't take the chance that we won't be heard," Wood said. "We're going to participate even though we think it's completely ridiculous."
Martens said the DEC will be in position to make changes to their regulations based on the Health Department's review. Currently, three academic experts are working with the state to make recommendations to limit or prevent the potential health effects of fracking.
"People won't be wasting their time," Martens said of the comment period. "But if we get recommendations from the Department of Health that lead us to change our mind about a specific regulation, we have the opportunity to change it."
The gas industry is taking the comment period "very seriously" and will be making formal suggestions to the DEC, said Tom West, an Albany-based attorney and lobbyist representing several oil-and-gas companies. But he cautioned that the agency may not be able to make too many changes because state law requires "substantial" revisions to be put to public comment.
Dennis Holbrook, chief legal officer for Norse Energy, said he believes the DEC's regulations contain some "overreach" and "overreaction" based on political fears. But gas companies are just looking for a chance to prove themselves in New York, he said.
"Can the industry make it work? In reality, we have to," Holbrook said. "The reality is you have to walk before you can run and we haven't had a chance to walk."
A co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of shale-gas drilling opponents, said the group will be very active during the comment period.
Sandra Steingraber, a scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, said the DEC's decision to issue new regulations was "a cynical attempt to move us toward allowing fracking to happen."
"But we at New Yorkers Against Fracking are a growing movement and if that's one step forward, we're planning to push it two steps back," Steingraber said.