In a predawn vote Wednesday, New York State's senate passed a bill that reaches beyond the debate over the environmental safety of drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale and would effectively ban almost all gas and oil drilling in the state until next spring. The bill circumvents an environmental review by the state's regulatory agency that could be finished this year.
The bill prohibits the underground process of hydraulic fracturing, which breaks up buried rock and releases gas trapped inside.
Its author, State Senator Antoine Thompson, told ProPublica the moratorium is aimed at pausing the kind of high-volume hydraulic fracturing used in horizontally-drilled wells in the Marcellus Shale until legislators can reach an informed decision about its risks. But the language in the final bill as it is posted on the state's website does not differentiate between the different ways hydraulic fracturing can be used. It appears to be a blanket prohibition that would also stop hydraulic fracturing in New York's many vertical oil and gas wells and would apply to drilling in geologic formations outside the Marcellus.
The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an industry trade group, has pushed hard against the measure, describing it as "unnecessary" and driven by "a calculated campaign of misinformation and ignorance."
An IOGA spokesman told ProPublica the bill was technically flawed and would affect hydraulically fractured wells beyond the intent of the law. It would have the unintended consequence of preventing drilling that is currently allowed, he said.
"They really don't understand what they are opposing and they don't understand why they are opposing it," said Jim Smith, the IOGA spokesman. "Many of them don't know the difference between horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- they use the term hydraulic fracturing to describe the entire process."
The bill passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 48 to nine. The state assembly, which is considering a similar version of the bill, began its August recess yesterday, so it won't vote on the bill until mid-September. Then the measure would have to be signed by Gov. David Paterson, whose term ends Dec.31, before it becomes law.
The anti-fracturing measure -- the first of its kind in the nation -- initially arose out of concerns that New York could experience the same rash of water contamination, spills and air quality impacts that have affected Pennsylvania since it embraced widespread Marcellus Shale drilling two years ago.
Its passage was speeded by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Thompson said.
"We have to make sure we do our due diligence," Thompson told ProPublica. "There have been clear examples just next door in Pennsylvania where the Department of Environmental Protection fell short. We have to make sure that whether there are concerns raised by landowners, the Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club or just a resident of New York that we try to address them legislatively and not just through the permitting process."
The bill would prevent gas and oil drillers from using hydraulic fracturing in oil or gas wells until May 15, 2011.
The state's Department of Environmental Conservation is charged with permitting drilling in New York, and is in the midst of a two-year-long environmental review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. The agency has received more than 14,000 comments on its draft report, and is expected to complete a final study as soon as September, after which it could begin permitting new wells.
A DEC spokesman declined to comment on the progress of the environmental review or the impact of the senate bill.
At a news conference in Albany Wednesday morning, Gov. Paterson spoke indirectly about the Senate bill, saying the DEC is still reviewing mountains of research on the drilling process and should be allowed to finish that process.
He added that drilling stands to be "very lucrative" for the state, which has struggled through budget shortfalls and the recession. "But we don't want that opportunity to in any way obfuscate our intent to provide public safety and clean water, which is a vital problem," he said.
In addition to stepping on the DEC's toes, the ban would defer a decision on the state's drilling policies to the governor's successor, who will be elected in November.
"It makes sense that this outgoing administration not saddle the incoming administration with a permanent program," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's something the environmental and grassroots community in the state has been pushing for, which is a legislative time out."