Fracking Rule Delays Rile New Yorkers

In New York, expected rules on hydro-fracking for natural gas are overdue, and leaders in Albany seem poised to slow the rule-making process further. The delays are not going over well with some people who hope to cash in on the gas boom.

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Horizontal hydro-fracking has transformed the energy market. Drillers get natural gas out of the ground by drilling down, then sideways, using water pressure to unlock energy - natural gas. But for all the money coming out of the ground in some places, the technique is contentious and New York does not allow it; which causes landowners to feel they're being left behind.

David Chanatry filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS AND COWS)

DAVID CHANATRY, BYLINE: For three generations of a family in Tioga Center, New York, dairy farming is a rewarding but hard life. Scott Thomas points to the evidence.

SCOTT THOMAS: Yes. You can look at these gentlemen's hands, they can tell...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: ...it's a tough way to go. But you got to love it, you know?

CHANATRY: Thomas and his in-laws have 130 cows on more than 600 acres of land, plus a bunch of aging farm equipment. What they don't have yet are any natural gas wells and the income that comes with them.

THOMAS: We need that to take help take care of debt. I mean every farmer has debt. I don't know too many that don't, except for maybe some of those in Bradford County and the surrounding counties and then just south of us in PA.

CHANATRY: That's Pennsylvania where fracking has led to an economic boom. New York is going slow. The state's had a moratorium on drilling since 2008 so it could develop regulations. But the deadlines keep slipping.

THOMAS: The people in Albany are so far away. They're so displaced from here.

CHANATRY: Now, even if the state approves fracking, the payout to landowners will be a lot less than their neighbors in Pennsylvania received. So much gas has been produced there and elsewhere that the price has dropped, by about 65 percent over the past five years. A few years ago, Thomas might have gotten as much as $5500 an acre to lease his land. Now, if he could get a lease, it might pay just a few hundred dollars.

But drilling would still mean jobs. New York estimates eventually around 50,000 new positions. There's already some spillover business from just over the border. Hotels have seen an up tick and added a few positions. And the local Chamber of Commerce says engineering and construction firms are primed to expand if drilling begins.

But the opposition to fracking has been organized and intense.

MARK RUFFALO: Please, do what's right. This is a moral issue.

CHANATRY: Actor Mark Ruffalo is one of many artists and celebrities who have embraced the anti-fracking fight. Many pro-drillers increasingly resent the antis, who they see as meddling outsiders who will never be convinced that fracking can be done safely.

Julie Lewis has six kids, three mortgages and no health insurance. Her husband works part-time for the gas industry in Pennsylvania and she has applied for jobs there. They've been approached by gas companies who want to lease their 34 acres.

JULIE LEWIS: We've got these Hollywood actors and actresses coming in here and don't frack New York. You know, stay in Hollywood.

CHANATRY: There is significant opposition to drilling among people sitting on gas, as well. Concerns over water use, waste disposal and impacts on the land. Their biggest fear is that drinking water will be contaminated. No decision on fracking in New York will be made before State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah reviews whether it would impact public health.

DR. NIRAV SHAH: Well the problem is it's a moving target. The science is moving. And we need to make sure we understand what are our needs, relative to the moving target of the science.

CHANATRY: Shah spoke at a recent press conference with Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo acknowledged the potential economic benefit from fracking, but defended the state's deliberate approach.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: I want to know what we're doing before we do it. Call me crazy, but I found that tends to be a better way of operating.

CHANATRY: But many landowners here, eager to start drilling, think the governor is only concerned about political science, and how fracking might affect his interest in higher office.

For NPR News, I'm David Chanatry.

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