By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Final rules that could lift a three year ban on fracking in New York will be finalized by state regulators in the coming months, after a heated and divisive public comment period closed on Wednesday.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation will sift through more than 20,000 comments received since September as local communities, the energy industry and environmentalists voice their polarized views on the controversial process.
Fracking in shale formations has unlocked decades of natural gas supply in other states across the country, but has be blamed by authorities for polluting water wells.
"If high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, it will move forward with the strictest standards in the nation to ensure New York's drinking water and other natural resources are thoroughly protected," said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens in a statement.
The DEC's decision has big implications for energy companies - many of which have leased expensive acreage in New York that now can't be drilled - and New York's water, which environmentalists say will be polluted by drilling.
Public hearings across the state in November were characterized by raucous disagreement in small towns that could become drilling centers of the kind that have cropped up across neighboring Pennsylvania in recent years.
A decision is expected later this year, the DEC said.
New York, which sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation, imposed a moratorium to assess the impacts of fracking, which involves pumping millions of gallons of chemical-laced water deep underground to extract natural gas.
A recent study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency showed that harmful chemicals used in fracking likely found their way into an aquifer in Wyoming, a charge that Encana Corp, which drills in the area, vehemently denies. Elsewhere, gas escaping from badly constructed wells has contaminated drinking water supplies.
Environmental groups warn that fracking, which will largely take place in rural upstate New York, could pollute water for residents not just upstate but aquifers that supply New York City too.
But energy companies, some of whom are considering leaving New York altogether due to the lingering ban, say it can be done safely and will bring jobs and money to New York's debt-laden economy.
"The opportunity to develop one of the world's largest resources of clean burning natural gas is too great to be lost, or left off-limits to responsible development," said Michael Doyle, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute.
(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Editing by David Gregorio)