By JON CAMPBELL
ALBANY -- A plan floated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration to open up parts of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale was hailed by pro-drilling groups Wednesday while environmentalists pledged to push back.
The state may initially allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the deepest parts of the shale formation, primarily in counties along the Pennsylvania border, according to The New York Times. That would include Broome, Tioga, Chemung, Chenango, Tioga and Steuben counties, where the formation is expected to be most lucrative.
Additionally, the strategy calls for only allowing the drilling process in municipalities that welcome it and would institute a ban within Catskill Park, above aquifers and on historic sites.
Conservation and anti-hydrofracking groups were quick to criticize the plan. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the governor's office stressed that nothing has been finalized.
"No final decision has been made and no decision will be made until the (DEC's) scientific review is complete and we have all the facts," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said in a statement.
In a statement, the Natural Resources Defense Council said there "remain too many questions that must be answered and too many health and environmental issues that must be resolved for the state to consider moving forward now with any plans to frack -- whether in limited portions of the Marcellus Shale region or otherwise."
A gas-industry trade group responded favorably to the plan, though it had previously expressed concern with taking large swaths of the Marcellus off of the table, particularly when it concerns the Syracuse and New York City watersheds. Last year, the DEC proposed a surface drilling ban over both.
"It's a move in the right direction," said James Smith, a spokesman for the state Independent Oil & Gas Association. "It's a positive step. We're not going to look beyond today, but right now the state seems to be moving in the direction of allowing this."
The plan, according to the report, is viewed by the state as a way to help protect against potential water contamination. Permits would be limited to 50 in the first year drilling is allowed.
But the strategy may be dictated by circumstance, as well.
The gas industry had already targeted the shale along the Pennsylvania border when several companies submitted permit requests in 2008, before the DEC put high-volume hydrofracking on hold as it launched an environmental and regulatory review. That review continues, and permits can't be issued until it's complete.
Since then, natural-gas prices have hit decade-long lows due to a glut on the market caused in part by shale-gas drilling in other states. The gas prices have led some operators to pull back in other states, tempering expectations of a drilling boom in New York.
A spokeswoman for the DEC didn't answer directly when asked about the plan. The Times report cited "senior official at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and others with knowledge of the administration's strategy."
"Our review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing is continuing and no decisions have been made," Emily DeSantis, the spokeswoman, said in a statement. "If high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, it will do so with the strictest standards in the nation."
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, however, told Gannett's Albany Bureau in April that a community's support or opposition would likely be a consideration if the agency moves to allow high-volume hydrofracking, a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into underground shale formations to release natural gas.
"I think logically where there is less resistance and less opposition and there is not a local land-use plan in place, I think those will be easier to permit than in other places," Martens said at the time. "That's not to say that we're going to prohibit them in other places, but it's a consideration we have to carefully view."
Lawmakers were split on the idea of issuing a limited amount of hydrofracking permits in certain portions of the state.
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, unveiled an open letter Wednesday signed by more than 70 lawmakers, detailing their concerns with the DEC's current review of hydrofracking. In particular, the legislators called for a complete analysis of health impacts, as well as greater restrictions on wastewater from the fracking process.
"We legislators, as an equal partner in New York state government, want to communicate very clearly and directly to the governor that our critical concerns must be resolved before any fracking is permitted," Lifton said.
The DEC's review -- called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement -- is expected to be finalized later this year.
Some lawmakers and lobbyists expressed concern about a provision that could require municipalities to formally approve of hydrofracking for permits to be issued there. Landowner groups have been active in recent weeks getting towns to pass supportive resolutions, while more than 100 municipalities -- generally outside of the shale's fairway -- have passed moratoriums or bans.
"It's very positive. I'm excited about it, but as I've said, I have 30,000 landowners and there may be towns in Broome, Tioga, Chenango counties that haven't taken a formal vote," said Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton. "That doesn't mean we should discount the rights of those 30,000 landowners."
Tom West, an industry lobbyist, called the apparent plan a "positive step," but still had some reservations.
"It will be good to make progress and get some drilling to occur," West said. "I still do have some concerns about the legality of making any part of the state off limits to development, given that the state policy is to promote the development of the resource."
Sandra Steingraber, an Ithaca College scholar-in-residence and the founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, called the idea of allowing drilling in a limited part of the state a "shameful idea."
Environmental groups, meanwhile, called on the Cuomo administration to formally release the plan for review.
"If the governor's proposal is real, a full analysis of it must be released for public scrutiny and comment before the state's environmental review of fracking is finalized," the New York Water Rangers said in a statement.