With a deadline imminent to finalize regulations for shale gas development in the Empire State, Nirav Shah, Commissioner of the Department of Health, released a letter to Department of Environmental Conservation chief Joseph Martens regarding the status of a long-awaited health review on the safety of fracking. The review is the final piece to the state’s policy, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), that will make or break shale gas development in New York. Shah’s tone is clearly one of caution, and he suggests that no shale gas development will begin in New York until the monumental task for determining health impacts is complete:
The time to ensure the impacts on public health are properly considered is before a state permits drilling. Other states began serious health reviews only after proceeding with widespread HVHF.
In my view, that is not the right approach for New York to take if we are serious that public health is the paramount question in making the HVHF decision. And as Health Commissioner, protecting the public health is my primary job.
The Department of Health review of the [SG]EIS is on-going. In particular we are focused on the relationship of HVHF to the health impacts of drinking water contamination, but also other areas such as air quality and community impacts.
Shah then indicates the importance of evaluating other major studies examining correlations between fracking and public health. They include a study by the EPA on how fracking affects ground water, which is not expected to be completed until next year. That all sounds good for the anti-fracking movement, and it was received with enthusiasm.
“In short, New York's shale gas extraction moratorium is still holding solid as a rock, as least for now,” anti-fracking activist Walter Hang declared to his followers. “We continue to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds.”
But Shah’s email was really more of a yellow light than a red light, and he held forth the possibility that it may soon turn green. At the end of his letter, Shah concludes that his review will be complete “in a couple of weeks.” It’s the exact off-handed phrasing that DEC Commissioner Martens used in response to questions about the timing of the SGEIS during a hearing in front of lawmakers last week. And it’s a response that leaves plenty of room to wonder how the health department is going to incorporate the studies that Shah cites, some of which will take years to complete, into its final policy analysis in such a short time. The fact that state has not released any information about the scope or method of the health review leaves room for even more wonder.
In interviews addressing the release of Shah’s letter Tuesday, Martens encouraged the notion that a health study would not necessarily hold up permitting. Missing the deadline for regulations “is not terribly significant in my view,” Martens told WXXI’s Karen Dewitt. “We can move forward on the SGEIS and we can start a new rule making at any point in time … and we would not have to finalize the rules to consider applications.” In other words, regulations are not a necessary requirement for shale gas development, in the short term or long term. In their absence, the industry would be overseen through permitting guidelines spelled out in the SGEIS, which leave the determination of variances and compliance up to the discretion of DEC permitting officials.
The comments of Martens and Shah, taken collectively, leave plenty of room for interpretation. And sure enough, partisans both for and against fracking were quick to interpret the messages delivered Tuesday in their favor. In addition to Hang’s enthusiastic reaction, there’s this from Sandra Steingraber, an influential leader of New York’s anti-fracking movement:
We are confident that such a review will show that the costs of fracking in terms of public health are unacceptable. Commissioner Shah has indicated how important it is to do this right, which means bringing the public and New York State health experts into this process.
And there’s this from Karen Moreau, executive director, New York State Petroleum Council and a fracking supporter:
Given the DEC Commissioner’s assurances that this delay will not mean delays for issuing permits, we respect the administration’s need to finish this last study and finally come to resolution. We also know that it can and must end with a decision to move forward.
Industry attorney Tom West put a finer point on the issue in an interview with Susan Arbetter of the Capitol Press Room by declaring that the industry was better served moving forward without regulations, which he found to be too restrictive.
In the end, it’s unclear whether the news from Albany Tuesday was an attempt to assure stakeholder that officials were duly considering the protection of public health, or perhaps the first step to shed a layer of oversight that the industry did not want anyway. More likely, the events are simply a bid for more time for Cuomo, who remains uncommitted and ambivalent about fracking. We know there is one firm deadline that he faces: His first term as governor ends next year. He will surely have to make up his mind before election time…