By Jon Campbell and Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- The state may miss a key deadline in its analysis of hydraulic fracturing if the Department of Health recommends new safety measures, New York's top environmental regulator said Monday.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation faces a Feb. 27 deadline to finalize its proposed fracking regulations or allow them to expire. Whether the agency will meet the deadline depends on when state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah completes his review of the DEC's analysis and what he ultimately recommends, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said at a legislative budget hearing Monday.
"It all depends on what the health review says," Martens said. "If it recommends additional measures, then it's going to difficult to finalize it and get the regulations finalized."
Martens first asked Shah in August to analyze the DEC's review of hydrofracking and make recommendations with the assistance of three outside consultants. In a separate budget hearing last week, Shah said he believes his review will be finished "in a few weeks."
But the DEC's time frame is tight. In order to finalize the regulations by Feb. 27, the agency would likely have to finalize a lengthy environmental review -- which it first launched in 2008 -- by Feb. 13.
If the regulatory deadline is missed, the state would have to again put the regulations out for public comment -- a move that could delay a decision on fracking for months.
Missing the end-of-February deadline would deal a blow to the natural-gas industry and pro-drilling landowners, who have urged the DEC to allow high-volume fracking in order to tap the gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation.
Opponents of fracking packed the hearing room where Martens delivered his testimony Monday, occasionally cheering lawmakers' questions and groaning at Martens' responses.
"I think you've even doing a great job -- except on the issue of hydrofracking," Sen. Tony Avella, D-Queens, said to applause.
Meanwhile, a new poll from Siena College found voters remain split on whether New York should allow fracking. Even in the Southern Tier, where most of drilling would take place, residents' opinions were fractured, the poll found.
Voters statewide were evenly divided -- 40 percent on each side -- on whether the DEC should give regulatory approval for hydrofracking.
In the Southern Tier -- defined by Siena as a 13-county region including Broome, Chemung and Tompkins counties -- the split was similar: 47 percent were supportive; 48 percent were opposed.
"With DEC expected to soon issue a decision on whether or not to allow fracking to move forward, voters across the state remain evenly divided, and voters in the Southern Tier -- the area that makes up the majority of the Marcellus Shale in New York -- are also evenly divided on the issue," said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg in a statement.
The poll said that those opposed to fracking would have the strongest reaction if the drilling technique moved forward. Anti-fracking groups have protested regularly at the Capitol in recent years, contending that fracking would hurt the environment and contaminate the water supply.
If fracking moved forward, 88 percent of opponents would be upset, including 54 percent who would be very upset, the poll said. If fracking did not move ahead, 59 percent of supporters would be upset, including 20 percent who would be very upset.
Greenberg said the even divide puts Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a difficult position. The DEC is expected to decide later this month whether to move forward with the drilling.
"The governor is in a position that chief executives hate: making a decision on a controversial issue where voters are split down the middle, Greenberg said.
The poll was conducted Jan. 27-31, 2013 to 1,154 New York voters. It included 401 registered voters in the 14 counties of the Southern Tier. It has an overall margin of error of 3.7 percentage points and a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points for the Southern Tier sample.
For more information on the poll, visit http://www.siena.edu/pages/1167.asp
To watch 9:30 a.m. budget hearing Monday on environment, visit: http://statepolitics.lohudblogs.com/