By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's environmental body on Wednesday extended a public comment period on proposed rules for natural gas drilling in the state, frustrating companies eager to exploit its rich natural gas deposits.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation extended the comment period for its draft environmental impact statement on drilling from 60 to 90 days, bowing to pressure from environmentalists worried about the effects on water supplies.
The comment period, which begins on Wednesday, will give parties until December 12 to react to the DEC's recommendation to end a year-long ban on drilling in New York following concerns that an extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, contaminates underground wells and aquifers.
The DEC said that the extension means the comment period will fall in line with proposed regulations on drilling which it plans to roll out in October.
"Extending the comment period allows us to move forward with the draft impact statement and the regulations concurrently and accommodates requests to allow more time for public comment," a DEC spokeswoman said.
Last month, a collection of 76 local organizations and environmentalists wrote to Governor Cuomo asking for an extension of the comment period to 180 days, given the density of the 1,000 page environmental statement which was released at the end of June.
But drillers keen to open up New York's portion of the gas-rich Marcellus shale deposit see this as another hurdle in producing natural gas in the state.
"Sixty days was adequate, people have already had 60 days to look at the report before the comment period," said Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which represents drillers in the state.
"Over the past few years, jobs have been leaving New York. The longer you delay, the more compounded the problem gets," Smith said.
A DEC-commissioned report today said that nearly 25,000 jobs could be created directly from drilling in New York.
The drilling technique of fracking has unlocked huge reserves of natural gas trapped in shale by blasting the rock underground with chemical-laced water and sand.
The process has led to a drilling boom in neighboring Pennsylvania, home to a large stretch of the Marcellus shale formation, but has also stoked fears about drilling fluids escaping into waterways and into aquifers which feed major cities.
Last year, New York placed a moratorium on drilling while it assessed the effects of fracking. Its draft impact statement recommends that drilling go ahead, but with conditions. Drillers must not drill within a certain distance of watersheds or aquifers and more stringent well construction standards must be met.
Drilling permits in New York will not be issued until the DEC's draft impact statement has been finalized and new regulations are in place, the DEC said.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Marguerita Choy)