After years of review, state environmental officials on Friday said they were confident hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of natural-gas extraction, could be done safely in New York's Southern Tier without polluting air or drinking water, but recommended banning it near New York City's water supply.
"Hydrofracking," as the practice is known, involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into rock formations, releasing the gas trapped inside.
The method has been assailed by environmentalists nationwide for its potential to leak toxic chemicals into local water supplies. But proponents say hydrofracking is safe, and allowing it in New York would create tens of thousands of jobs, drum up revenue in cash-strapped upstate communities, and potentially decrease utility costs for many New Yorkers.
On Friday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released a summary of a highly-anticipated 900-page report, which will be available July 8, that recommends banning hydrofracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as well as 500 feet from any public water supply or private well. That would still leave at least 80 percent of the state's gas reserves open for drilling.
The release of the report effectively ends a year-long moratorium on hydrofracking, but DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said permits would not be issued until early next year.
"We can protect the environment and reap some of the economic and energy benefits of drilling," Martens said at a news conference. "I'm confident we have the right controls."
One of the most important requirements he said, would be the construction of a series of cement casings around gas pipes meant to keep leaking gas from reaching watersheds. The state would also require companies to disclose most of the chemicals they use.
A 60-day public comment period will run from the end of August to the end of October, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo will make a decision on the scope of hydrofracking in the state. A similar comment period in 2009 yielded 13,000 responses; more are expected this year.
While many environmentalists said the DEC's suggestions are a solid first step, other fracking opponents expressed greater disappointment. Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) sponsored a bill this year that would have into next summer. He said further study is needed, as new research continues to point out potential hazards of gas drilling.
"Report after report shows us situations where we're putting public health in jeopardy," Carlucci said. "The gas isn't going anywhere, there will be money to be made, but we want to do it right."
Gov. Cuomo has stayed out of the spotlight on the issue, but has stressed in the past that the safety of drinking water is his top concern. On Friday, Cuomo lauded the report for being "based on rigorous testing, research, facts and science, not politics or ideology on the issue." He also said the state's regulation of gas wells would be "aggressive and effective."
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge), who has sponsored bills to tighten regulation of gas drilling, said he supported the bulk of the recommendations released Friday.
"I am glad they are moving to protect certain areas and I am keeping my fingers crossed that those areas where they may allow drilling are still under review," Castelli said.
He also lauded the creation of what he called "a blue ribbon panel" of environmentalists, industry officials and state lawmakers who are tasked with thinking up strategies to implement and enforce the DEC's hydrofracking rules.
Kate Sinding, the senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the panel, said the DEC recommendations are a promising first step.
"It appears they are proposing more stringent rules than we've seen anywhere else," Sinding said, adding that she had not yet seen the full report.
But she had concerns that the DEC review was done "on a well-by-well basis" and without regard to the potential impacts of drilling on entire communities, and also about the state's decision to lift the moratorium before rules are in place, which likely won't be for another year.
"We're going to press for a uniform, legally-binding set of rules before they begin reviewing permits," Sinding said.
The soonest the state would begin issuing permits, Martens said on Friday, is early next year.