New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was reportedly considering a plan to allow 10 to 40 horizontal test wells on a trial basis in the state's Southern Tier, but changed his mind after discussing high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his former brother-in-law and an avid environmentalist.
Meanwhile, anti-fracking legislators in the New York Assembly have amended a bill they submitted last week and are now calling for a two-year moratorium on fracking.
The Associated Press reported that the Democratic governor and Kennedy discussed HVHF during a series of phone calls in February.
"I think the issue suddenly got simple for him," Kennedy told the press service. He later paraphrased Cuomo's portion of their conversations, stating that if HVHF "'is causing health problems, I really don't want it in New York State. And if it's not causing health problems, we should figure out a way we can do it.'"
Last week the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) missed a deadline to create regulations for HVHF because a health impact analysis of the practice by the Department of Health (DOH) had not yet been completed (see Shale Daily, Feb. 28). Although Cuomo made no official comment about the lapsed deadline on Feb. 27, supporters and opponents of HVHF renewed their respective campaigns to sway the governor.
Although the Associated Press cited comments from Kennedy and two unnamed sources that the governor was at one point considering the trial drilling program, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto released a statement that seemed to indicate the report was false.
Vlasto said the DEC and DOH are "in the process of making a determination with respect to the safety and health impacts of fracking. After, and only after, they conclude their work will the state's position be determined. It's that simple and it hasn't and doesn't change with any conversations." Vlasto could not be reached for comment Monday.
Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA), told NGI's Shale Daily that the organization had no information on the validity of the report.
"I'm sure they've considered a lot of options [for HVHF," Smith said Monday. "The governor has said his administration has considered a number of options while studying this over the past couple of years. But I have no information that said the trial or the test sites were accurate.
"If there were a handful of test sites, I'm not sure what companies would invest in that if there were no regulatory assurance that more wells would be allowed. Companies may not be willing to invest in something that might just be 'one and done.'"
Smith added that IOGA's membership were hopeful that Kennedy's involvement was either false or exaggerated. "Our members would hope that [Kennedy] would not have that kind of influence over the activities of state government, and that the governor would seek a counterpoint for making any decisions. But I have no idea if that's an accurate portrayal of what happened.
"We're looking forward. There's really nothing for us to do except still hope that decisions are made based on science, not politics and fear mongering and unproven anecdotes from other areas of the country."
Kennedy is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and is chief legal counsel for the Hudson Riverkeeper organization. He is also Cuomo's former brother-in-law; Cuomo and Kerry Kennedy married in 1990 and divorced in 2005.
Last September, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens asked DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah to conduct a health impact analysis on HVHF. But in a Feb. 12 letter, Shah told Martens that his hired panel of experts still needed a few weeks to complete their work (see Shale Daily, Feb. 13, Sept. 24, 2012).
Shah also told Martens that he wanted to incorporate the findings of three competing studies -- led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Geisinger Health System and the University of Pennsylvania -- into his health impact statement (see Shale Daily, Feb. 22; Aug. 21, 2012). Shah was an associate investigator for Geisinger before being tapped by Cuomo to serve in his administration.
Lawmakers opposed to HVHF introduced a bill on Feb. 26, calling for a one-year moratorium on the practice. The bill, A5424, was referred to the Environmental Conservation Committee, but on March 1 it was amended to two years and resubmitted to the committee.
A5424 now also calls for a school within the State University of New York (SUNY) system to conduct a comprehensive health impact assessment on HVHF, and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the potential public health impacts from the practice. The SUNY school would also prepare a scoping document before the CDC performs its work. A public review and comment period would follow.