Nirav Shah — commissioner of the New York Department of Health (DOH) and a figure at the center of the debate over whether to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in the state — is planning to resign his post next month for a new job in California.

DOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond told NGI’s Shale Daily that Shah plans to step down on May 4 to take a position as COO for clinical operations for the southern California region of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., a unit of Oakland, CA-based Kaiser Permanente.

Howard Zucker, who currently serves as first deputy commissioner at DOH, will serve as interim commissioner at the department until a replacement can be found, Hammond said.

Shah was pushed to the center of the ongoing debate over HVHF in New York in September 2012 after Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joseph Martens asked him to complete a health impact analysis on the practice (see Shale Daily, Sept. 24, 2012). That report was to be completed before DEC finished a supplemental generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS) on HVHF.

Supporters of HVHF have filed two lawsuits against state officials — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Martens and Shah — over the ongoing regulatory delays in considering HVHF (see Shale Daily, Feb. 18; Nov. 25, 2013). New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has filed motions to have the two lawsuits dismissed (see Shale Daily, March 31; March 7).

“We wish Dr. Shah well in his new position with Kaiser Foundation Health Plan in California although we are deeply disappointed that he has not completed his health review on HVHF,” Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, said Thursday. “The state and Dr. Shah appear to have other priorities that do not include the revitalization of our dying communities in the Marcellus Shale region.

“The health impacts of poverty and unemployment seem to be of no concern to our state leaders. Rest assured that Dr. Shah’s departure will have no impact on our lawsuit to compel the state to complete the SGEIS.”

Brad Gil, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, told NGI’s Shale Daily on Thursday that he doesn’t think Shah’s departure “means a whole lot for our industry.

“I would love to think that it would mean that a health study would be expedited and a decision would be made sooner. I think that would be the case if this weren’t purely political on the governor’s part.

“I think all it means is that the governor lost his whipping boy. He got tired of being such and moved on to greener pastures. I don’t think it resets the clock necessarily and creates more delay, and I also don’t think it’s going to expedite anything. My opinion is — I don’t think it’s going to change much.”

In a video posted online Wednesday, Rob Astorino, Republican candidate for governor, called for Shah to resign, in part on the grounds that he was “politicizing the natural gas issue,” and that the DOH suffered from “perennial inaction” over the health impact study.

“The delays at the DOH — which are clearly political — have become a bad joke, but a joke costing thousands of New Yorkers jobs and billions of dollars in revenues,” Astorino said. “Meanwhile, 30 other states — including many with Democratic governors — are extracting natural gas safely, [using] a practice supported by President Obama, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency], the Energy and Interior departments and many environmental groups.

“Look, we get it. The state health commissioner is doing Governor Cuomo’s political bidding in delaying a decision through his election. But isn’t the state health commissioner supposed to be New York’s chief medical officer, not a political foil for Governor Cuomo?”

Gil said he thought it was a coincidence that Astorino called for Shah to resign and the news broke that he was stepping down. “I don’t believe that one had anything to do with the other, other than just coincidence and luck on Astorino’s part,” Gil said.

Hammond said the two events were a coincidence. “This move has been in the works for a number of weeks,” he said.