By Peter Rudegeair
(Reuters) - The natural gas drilling process known as fracking would not be a danger to public health in New York state so long as proper safeguards were put into place, according to a health department report that environmentalists fear could help lift a moratorium on the controversial technique.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is weighing the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing - commonly known as fracking - against the environmental risks from a technology that could unlock a vast domestic energy supply but also one that environmentalists say pollutes groundwater and the air.
Potential hazards could be avoided by implementing precautions the state has identified, according to a February 2012 preliminary assessment from the New York State Department of Health that became widely reported in the media on Thursday.
"Significant adverse impacts on human health are not expected from routine HVHF," or high volume hydraulic fracturing, the document concluded.
Natural gas drilling in New York state could create $11.4 billion in economic output and raise $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to a July 2011 report from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
Fracking is the process of releasing natural gas and oil from rock deposits deep underground by fracturing shale formations with chemical-laced water and sand.
The release of the document came as Cuomo's government continued to deliberate whether to overturn a 4-year-old moratorium on fracking originally put in place to assess the effects of the drilling process.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is the lead agency studying fracking, with contributions from other departments such as health.
In late November, the Department of Environmental Conservation was granted a 90-day extension to its original deadline for completing a draft of fracking regulations in order for its environmental impact study to be reviewed by the state health commissioner and outside health experts.
Since the preliminary assessment was put together nearly a year ago, was incomplete, and did not reflect the input of these experts, it does not reflect the final policy of the Department of Environmental Conservation, spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in an email.
"I sincerely hope that this is not where the administration is going with the health review," said Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates, a group concerned over the state's plans for fracking.
"It is nothing more than a justification for not doing a health review and a defense for the plans and proposals they've already put out there," said Nadeau, who had reviewed the document.
The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which represents oil and gas producers in the state, called on the Cuomo administration to lift the moratorium because the experience of other states has shown that fracking could be done in a way that protects the environment and public health.
"All ongoing environmental reviews, including New York's health assessment, will make similar conclusions," Brad Gill, the group's executive director, said in an emailed statement.
The precautions the health department document proposed for the state to put into place were of varying specificity. For example, the transport of drilling water that flows back out of wells after fracking should be subject to similar requirements to the treatment of medical waste.
The document's safety recommendations were less detailed when it came to quantitative health risks posed by individual fracking chemicals at different drilling sites, due to the overwhelming number of variables at play. (Reporting By Peter Rudegeair; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)