The New York State Assembly’s passage of a bill calling for a two-year moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in the state could divide the fragile bipartisan coalition that controls the Senate.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Assembly passed the moratorium bill, A5424, by a 95-40 vote (see Shale Daily, March 7). The bill also calls for a comprehensive health impact assessment on HVHF by a school within the State University of New York system, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a public review and comment period. HVHF permitting would be suspended until May 15, 2015.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Senate 33-30, but the GOP controls the chamber with a bloc of five dissident Democrats — the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) — through a power-sharing deal formed after the 2012 election. Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) also caucuses with the Republicans, giving the bipartisan coalition a 36-27 edge over the Democrats.

The five IDC members are Sens. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), Diane Savino (D-Brooklyn), Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), David Carlucci (D-Rockland) and David Valesky (D-Madison).

On Tuesday, Carlucci and Savino introduced a bill, S4046, that also calls for a two-year moratorium on HVHF but also mandates that the state refrain from issuing regulations until three studies — by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Geisinger Health System and the University of Pennsylvania — are completed (see Shale Daily, Feb. 22; Aug. 21, 2012).

“A quick buck is not worth the long-term debt that our children will have to live with if we get this decision wrong,” Carlucci said Tuesday. “I cannot in good conscience support any measure that does not first fully evaluate all related scientific data, and that is precisely what we are advocating for here today. Let’s get the facts at our disposal before we launch into unchartered territory.”

Klein, who heads the IDC and also serves as one of the majority coalition leaders in the Senate, concurred. “Before making a decision, we need to ensure that state agencies have the best and most up to date information available,” he said. “These studies will provide the Department of Health [DOH] with a much clearer sense of whether or not hydrofracking can ever be conducted safely.”

Preliminary results from the Geisinger study may be released this year, but other results won’t be available for five, 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, final conclusions by EPA won’t be issued until 2014, after a public comment period.

Both bills, S4046 and A5242, were referred to the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee on Wednesday.

The IDC’s support for S4046 could put it on a collision course with the other majority coalition leader, Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Nassau). Other Republicans in the chamber, especially Sens. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) and Sen. James Seward (R-Milford), are strong supporters of shale development in the Empire State. Both anti-HVHF bills could ultimately be defeated in the Senate if Skelos doesn’t bring them up for a floor vote.

Libous and Seward could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a statement to NGI’s Shale Daily, the New York State Republican Committee blasted Assembly Democrats for an “endless” moratorium on fracking.

“Assembly Democrats demonstrate time and again their penchant for putting politics over pro-growth policies that create jobs for New Yorkers,” the committee said. “While Pennsylvania is home to a new multi-billion dollar industry, unemployment across upstate New York remains stubbornly high. The fracking can has been kicked down the road long enough.”

Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute, derided the Assembly’s decision as “tantamount to telling the people of the Southern Tier to ‘drop dead.’

“Once again, Albany politicians are putting politics before science, and the special interests before the people. The people of New York deserve better, to say the least.”

Moreau pointed out that in early 2012, the DOH completed an eight-page draft assessment of HVHF and concluded that, with appropriate regulation, the practice could be performed safely (see Shale Daily, Jan. 7). The report was never released to the public.

“For the Assembly to step in to further delay the process, even though a year ago the DOH determined that hydraulic fracturing could be done safely, speaks volumes about Albany,” Moreau said. “I know they want the people to believe that the days of dysfunction are behind us, but talking to a few real people from the Southern Tier would set them straight in a hurry.”

Other organizations that support shale development in the Empire State also weighed in on developments in Albany.

“This New York Assembly voted on a badly flawed piece of legislation and the outcome was not a surprise,” said Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. “We urge the Cuomo administration to move ahead with its consideration of safe and responsible development of natural gas, and render a decision based on science that provides New Yorkers with the opportunity to improve local economies, the environment and energy security through the production and use of this clean abundant energy resource.”

Steve Forde, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, concurred. “Leaders in Albany have had a clear choice for some time now,” he said. “[They can] move forward with common sense regulations that will create more jobs, higher revenues, and cleaner, more affordable energy, or prolong a hurry-up-and-wait process that places the state further on the sidelines at a time when its residents can afford it least.”

Moreau said the decision on HVHF was, ultimately, up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “He can and must move forward with safe natural gas development and create the jobs and revenue needed to save the Southern Tier before it’s too late,” Moreasu said. “The situation really is that dire, and his positive decision to allow HVHF really is the answer.

“We remain hopeful that he will do the right thing, do what he said he would do, and put science first. If that is the case, this will all work out for the best and we will begin safe natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale.”