ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- The New York state Department of Environmental Conservation has no projected date for finishing shale gas drilling rules, with completion dependent on recommendations from a health impact review, Commissioner Joe Martens said at a legislative budget hearing Monday.
"We do not have a timetable," Martens said when Sen. Tony Avella asked him when the 4 ½-year-old environmental impact review and related regulations will be completed. He said he expects to get a report from Health Commissioner Nirav Shah in "a few weeks."
If Shah recommends additional measures in the regulations, Martens said it will be difficult to meet a key deadline.
If regulations aren't finalized by Feb. 27, they'll expire and will have to be put out for public comment again, which would likely extend the drilling moratorium by months. Martens acknowledged that to meet the Feb. 27 deadline, the massive environmental impact review on which the regulations are based must be published by Feb. 13.
Avella, author of a bill to prohibit gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, asked Martens whether there was a separate health impact study being reviewed by Shah and a panel of outside experts. Martens said they were reviewing the DEC's entire environmental study, which he said runs "several thousand pages" and outlines measures to protect human health as well as the environment.
In response to a question, Martens revealed that DEC hired consultants to review potential seismic impacts, such as earthquakes, related to shale gas development. He said their findings are included in the latest revision of the environmental impact study.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DEC are expected to decide soon whether to lift the 4 ½-year-old moratorium on fracking, which has made vast quantities of natural gas accessible to drillers who use the technology to crack gas-rich rock about a mile underground in the Marcellus Shale, which underlies southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in the other Marcellus states and around the country.
Martens also answered questions on other issues, such as recovery from Superstorm Sandy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to use $400 million in federal funding to buy beachfront homes in New York City and Long Island. Martens said the houses would be razed and the land left as open space, allowing dunes, marshlands and other natural barriers to be built as protection against future storms.
While acknowledging that DEC staffing was at the lowest level in a decade, Martens said there were no plans to close any state facilities such as parks, campgrounds, fish hatcheries, or the pheasant-breeding farm in central New York. He said the agency has a "lean coordinator" who is reviewing all departments to find ways to operate more efficiently.
Hundreds of gas-drilling opponents packed the hearing room and repeatedly interrupted the hearing with applause, groans, or hissing. Many held small signs with slogans such as "No shale gas," although security guards made them leave larger placards outside.
Before the hearing began, Sandra Steingraber, a leader of New Yorkers Against Fracking, confronted Martens and demanded the environmental review and regulations be put on hold and a comprehensive health impact analysis be done by an independent investigator. She went to a seat after guards threatened to arrest her.
At the end of Martens' testimony, the protesters stood and chanted "Not one well!" before heading to the Capitol for a rally. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, joined the protesters to sign a "pledge of resistance" to fracking and discuss utilizing civil disobedience if shale gas development is permitted.
Cuomo's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1 makes no mention of fracking. Martens said it would be premature to allocate money to regulate something that hasn't even been approved to occur in the state. Cuomo has said the decision on whether to allow fracking will depend on whether the science shows it can be done safely.