Martens: Hydrofracking Permits “Conceivable” in 2012, But Only a Few

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The state’s top environmental regulator said Tuesday it’s “conceivable” a handful of permits could be issued this year for high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but said a final decision is “months, not years” away.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens told a panel of state lawmakers that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal does not seek any funds for additional gas-drilling regulators because of “the considerable work that remains before we finalize our regulatory framework.”

But he acknowledged the possibility that a small number of permits could be issued in 2012 with the agency’s existing staff. The amount of permits, however, would be “extremely limited,” he said.

“It could only be a limited number of permits,” Martens told reporters. “And that’s after we get through the whole process, complete the (permitting guidelines), do the summary of comments. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Martens testified as part of the Legislature’s budget hearing on environmental conservation. Cuomo has proposed to maintain the Environmental Protection Fund’s balance steady at $134 million, and keeps the agency’s staff level at 2,983.

Currently, the agency has 16 gas-drilling regulators. The DEC had previously estimated it would need 140 additional workers the first year it issues permits for high-volume hydrofracking, a technique used with gas drilling that requires a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals.

That estimate is based on 75 wells, the gas industry’s best guess for how quickly it would ramp up production in New York if the state gives hydrofracking the green light.

Before that can happen, however, the state would need to finalize its final report on the much-debated drilling technique. The agency also has to respond to any substantive issues raised in the more than 60,000 comments it received during a public response earlier this year.

Martens told lawmakers the agency’s current staff could conceivably handle only “a handful” of new drilling permits, but declined to put odds on the likelihood of that happening.

Wayne Bayer, a shop steward for the Public Employees Federation, said the union supports a moratorium on hydrofracking because of the agency’s dwindling staff level. The agency has lost more than 800 full-time employees since 2008.

PEF represents about 1,700 scientific and technical workers at the DEC, Bayer said.

“(The union) continues to support a moratorium on high-volume hydrofracking, because the existing staff shortages do not support this labor-intensive mission,” he told the panel of lawmakers.

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