By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK - A final hearing on proposals to lift a ban on natural gas drilling in New York state drew a crowd of protesters on Wednesday opposing further energy development in the state.
New York City hosted the last of four hearings to discuss the Department of Environmental Conservation's new rules that could open the state's borders next year to a controversial drilling technique known as fracking.
New York has had a three-year hiatus on fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand into gas-rich shale rock deep underground. The technique would allow drillers to tap potentially huge reserves of gas in New York's share of the giant Marcellus shale formation. But environmentalists say it can contaminate drinking water for millions of residents.
As at previous meetings across the state this month, protesters gathered in downtown Manhattan to express concern about the safety of water supplies, holding signs saying "Governor Cuomo, don't frack it up" and "Don't frack with New York".
"We have to be literally insane to contemplate fracking," New York State Senator Tony Avella told reporters outside the hearings. "Wake up Governor Cuomo, this is not going to provide jobs or revenue, but what it will do is poison the water supply for 17 million New Yorkers."
Development of the Marcellus and other U.S. shale deposits over the last few years has left the United States with a century's worth of supply. In neighboring Pennsylvania, production from the Marcellus has led to an energy boom that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is keen to replicate.
But fracking has been blamed for contaminating water supplies, as gas migrates from badly cemented wells into surrounding areas. A Pennsylvania well blowout in April which spilled drilling fluids into local waterways further stoked fears about the process.
"Evidence from other states demonstrates that there are significant environmental risks associated with hydrofracking," said State Senator Liz Krueger in her testimony to the DEC on Wednesday. "Every few months a new incident highlights the risk."
The gas industry maintains that fracking can be carried out safely and that the jobs created will help jump start New York's debt-laden economy. Drillers have complained that the new rules for drilling in New York are too strict, especially with regards to drilling near watersheds.
"The DEC now proposes to impose excessive permitting and regulatory requirements with questionable environmental benefits," said Cathy Kenny, associate director of New York State Petroleum Council.
The DEC extended its deadline for a second time on Wednesday, so the comment period on fracking will close on January 11. If the DEC's regulations are passed, new drilling permits could be handed out by next year.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; editing by Jim Marshall and David Gregorio)