By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- The state Department of Environmental Conversation signaled Tuesday it would seek to extend a fast-approaching deadline on its proposed rules for shale-gas drilling, meaning the process will soon be re-opened to public comment.
After declining to comment for the past two weeks about the late November deadline, a DEC spokeswoman issued a statement Tuesday afternoon indicating that the agency would file the necessary paperwork to delay the cut-off date for 90 days.
The DEC's proposed regulations for large-scale hydraulic fracturing were due to expire by Friday -- one year after the last public hearing was held.
"DEC will file a notice for a 90-day extension allowed by state law to continue to work as (Health Commissioner Nirav Shah's) health review of the SGEIS comes to completion," agency spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said.
High-volume hydrofracking has been on hold in New York since the state first launched an environmental review of the technique in 2008. That review -- known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS -- is currently being assessed by the state Health Department and three academic experts.
The deadline applies to the state's proposed regulations for overseeing fracking, the controversial method for extracting natural gas from underground formations such as the Marcellus Shale. Receiving an extension isn't as simple as asking for one.
In order to extend the date by 90 days, state law requires the DEC to issue an updated set of proposals, as well as an "assessment" of the thousands of comments received on the first draft. In addition, the new set of proposals has to be opened to public comment for at least 30 days.
When asked in an email if the DEC plans to issue those documents before the deadline, DeSantis declined to comment.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo first said last week that the DEC wouldn't be able to meet the deadline. When asked Tuesday by reporters in Rochester if the DEC will seek the 90-day extension, Cuomo said: "They will have to."
William Cooke, director of government relations for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said there's "no way in the world the state will have reasonably completed" its review in 90 days. Cooke and other environmentalists have been critical of hydrofracking and the state's review.
"We suspect that the 30-day public-comment period will result in so many comments that they will need more than the other 60 days just to go through them," Cooke said.
The head of the American Petroleum Institute's state chapter said opting for an extension was a "fair and appropriate step" given the alternative, which would be to restart the rule-making process.
"We hope and trust that the end of this decision-making process is now firmly in sight, and know that once it is done, the economic renewal of the Southern Tier is just around the corner," said Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council.
The hydrofracking rules aren't the only ones that will affect the gas industry. The DEC approved a new set of regulations last week that could impact how companies obtain water for hydrofracking operations.
The DEC acted last Wednesday to install a new permitting system for large withdrawals from the state's waterways, with the new rules set to take effect in April.
The regulations, which were required by a state law passed last year, will require a permit for any withdrawals of more than 100,000 gallons per day, for both public and private uses. Previously, property owners were allowed to withdraw from a water source if their property was along the edge, while permits were only required for water being taken for large public systems.
"Governor Cuomo signed this legislation to foster responsible conservation practices and economic growth while protecting water bodies and wildlife habitats," DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said in a statement Tuesday. "The regulations will allow the state to protect the environment while promoting economic growth and addressing droughts."
The law requiring the permitting system was supported by some critics of hydrofracking. High-volume fracking -- which is currently not allowed in New York -- requires several million gallons of water for each well. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals to fracture shale formations and release natural gas.
The state's portion of the Susquehanna and Delaware River basins, meanwhile, are regulated by multi-state commissions and are subject to separate permitting requirements.