The New York State Assembly voted on March 6 to suspend the issuance of drilling permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus and Utica formations until May 15, 2015. A copy of the bill—Assembly 5424-A—can be found here. The vote came as the state’s de facto moratorium approaches the five-year mark. Under the current de facto moratorium, the state will not issue drilling permits for hydraulic fracturing until the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completes its environmental impact statement and issues recommendations. The moratorium bill now moves to the New York State Senate, where many expect it will be shot down by strong Republican opposition.

New York state’s ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) began in 2008, when the DEC determined that HVHF activity in the state warranted environmental investigation and the publication of an environmental impact statement. The state ceased issuing HVHF permits while awaiting the DEC’s impact statement and recommendations. The DEC recently missed a February 27 deadline for issuing final drilling regulations, and therefore the de facto moratorium is set to continue into the foreseeable future.

Assembly bill 5424-A would officially extend the moratorium until May 15, 2015, to “give the Legislature sufficient time to more fully review the available data and to assess the findings of the Department of Environmental Conservation once they are released.” The bill also requires that a school of public health within the state’s public university system conducts a “comprehensive health impact assessment…to identify the risks associated with horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and to develop a long-term plan for monitoring, evaluating, tracking and mitigating potential public health impacts.”

The bill was sponsored by Kevin K. Sweeney, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation. Over forty co-sponsors signed onto the bill, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. In his speech announcing the bill, Speaker Silver stated that there are “too many unanswered questions” to allow HVHF to move forward at this point. Silver specifically referred to questions about the health effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, its potential impact on climate change, and the risk posed by radioactive materials in the wastewater produced during the hydraulic fracturing process. The Speaker also expressed skepticism that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it will face strong opposition from the Republican majority. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous has made it his goal to “make sure no [moratorium] bill passes the Senate.” Senator Libous, whose district lies within the Marcellus Shale formation, will fight to keep the moratorium bill from getting a vote on the Senate floor. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently predicted that the bill would die in the Senate. 

Nonetheless, the bill does have friends in the Senate. Senator David Carlucci introduced a similar but separate moratorium bill in the Senate just one day before the Assembly passed bill 5424-A. According to Carlucci, legislators need to “wait for…[environmental] studies to be done, get the science on the table and get all the data possible.”

If the moratorium bill makes it through the Senate, Governor Cuomo will then decide whether to sign it into law. According to reports out of Albany, pressure from drilling supporters has brought the Governor closer than ever to allowing a limited number of closely-monitored hydraulic fracturing wells. But it remains uncertain how the Governor would come down on the bill. Cuomo recently declined to state his position, observing instead that the Senate “would have to pass a bill first.”  

Cuomo’s signature would not necessarily end the years-long moratorium dispute. The state’s current budget does not include money for hydraulic fracturing. Supporters of the moratorium note that the Assembly could potentially block any effort to move forward with HVHF by denying the DEC funds for enforcement.