By Jon Campbell | Albany Bureau
ALBANY, N.Y. -- For the third year in a row, the fate of a moratorium on shale-gas drilling lies in the state Senate, where opponents of hydraulic fracturing are hopeful Democrats in the chamber can get it passed.
The state Assembly on Wednesday voted in favor of a two-year moratorium on extracting gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration weighs whether to allow the natural-gas drilling process in New York.
Assembly Democrats provided enough support in a mostly party-line vote to pass the bill, which currently does not have a Senate sponsor. Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, introduced a similar but separate bill on Tuesday, though its future in the Senate is uncertain.
"We will not sit idly by and endanger the health and safety of our communities by rushing necessary health and safety reviews," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said.
The Assembly bill, which Silver co-sponsors, would prohibit large-scale hydrofracking until May 15, 2015. High-volume fracking has not been permitted in New York, but could be as soon as the Department of Environmental Conservation finalizes an Environmental Impact Statement it has been crafting since 2008.
The legislation would prevent permits from going out even if the document were completed. It would also direct a State University of New York university to complete a full study of the health impacts of fracking before it moves forward.
Hydrofracking supporters have boosted the technique as a potential economic boon to upstate New York, whose Southern Tier sits on the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica formations. Critics, however, say it could cause irreversible harm to the environment.
"Environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive activities," Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said in a statement Wednesday. "The grandstanding of today's vote is troubling."
The Assembly vote was largely along party lines, with most Republicans opposing the moratorium. The measure passed 103-40.
Three Assembly Republicans supported it, though: John Ceretto of Niagara Falls, Brian Curran of Long Island and Mark Johns of the Rochester area. Two Democrats opposed the moratorium: Dov Hikind of Brooklyn and Robin Schimminger of Buffalo.
The Assembly has passed similar bills in recent years, but the Senate hasn't taken up any hydrofracking legislation since 2010. That year, the Legislature passed a temporary moratorium that was vetoed by then-Gov. David Paterson, who instead directed the DEC to complete a second draft of the environmental review.
But there are now a numerical majority of Democrats in the Senate after it was controlled for the past two years by Republicans. Senate Republicans had blocked any fracking bills from coming to the floor for a vote. The GOP, however, still controls the Senate as part of a power-sharing agreement with the Independent Democratic Conference, a five-member caucus of breakaway Democrats.
Carlucci is a member of the IDC. His bill would tie a fracking moratorium to the completion of studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania.
Environmental groups said there should be a vote in the Senate.
"At this point, I think it's more a matter of letting senators vote their conscience," said Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program director for Environmental Advocates of New York. "There is support with a lot of key representatives in the Senate. I think it's just a matter of letting it come to the floor."
Both Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, and Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, have to agree to bring any bills to a vote. On a fracking moratorium, the two are split; Klein supports Carlucci's bill, while Skelos has called for allowing the Cuomo administration to finish their work.
"Senator Skelos believes that the DEC and Health Department should be allowed to complete their review so that the governor can make an informed and final decision as soon as possible," Skelos spokesman Scott Reif said.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has expressed satisfaction with his administration's decision-making process on fracking, which is currently held up as state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah reviews the DEC's proposed fracking guidelines. The governor would have the ability to veto any moratorium passed by the Legislature.
Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, said he's become frustrated with the delay in deciding on shale-gas drilling. His district sits within both the Marcellus and Utica shale regions, and he supports allowing fracking to move forward.
"This governor makes decisions based largely on polling, and the polling numbers aren't changing," O'Mara said. "This governor has to lead and has to make a decision."