Workers move a section of well casing into place at...

Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County. So vast is the wealth of natural gas locked into dense rock deep beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio that some geologists estimate it's enough to supply the entire East Coast for 50 years. But freeing it requires a powerful drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking,"using millions of gallons of water brewed with toxic chemicals that some fear threaten to pollute water above and below ground, deplete aquifers and perhaps endanger human health and the environment. (April 23, 2010) Credit: AP

Supporters of a controversial natural gas drilling method known as hydrofracking welcomed news Wednesday that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was considering allowing it to proceed in a limited area. Opponents reacted with a mix of caution and alarm.

"It's a step forward," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton). "It's the beginning of talking about something that we all in our region of the state think should progress in an environmentally safe manner."

Citing unnamed Cuomo administration officials, The New York Times reported Wednesday that the administration was considering a plan to allow hydrofracking to proceed in the Southern Tier -- primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga counties -- and only in towns that supported the practice, at least initially.

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto declined to comment on specific questions about the plan. Vlasto said in a statement that the administration was waiting for the results of scientific review before it makes any decisions.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to complete a final environmental impact study on hydrofracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations later this year. DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis did not respond to specific questions about Cuomo's reported plan.

Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) said he was concerned about the lack of a health impact study and that the public still didn't know what the administration was contemplating.

"I would have a concern about them proceeding so quickly without allowing adequate time for the legislature and the public to view and understand what the ground rules are going to be and having an opportunity to weigh in on them," said Sweeney, who chairs the Assembly committee on environmental conservation.

Limiting drilling to certain areas didn't address the overall environmental concerns, Sweeney said. "If hydrofracking is problematic, then it's problematic no matter where you do it," he said. Hydrofracking is a drilling method that releases natural gas in shale formations by pumping a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth. Other states' experiences have raised questions about how to dispose of drilling wastewater, which can contain toxic chemicals and could contaminate drinking water.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said the fact that it could be limited to a few areas initially "doesn't mean it eventually couldn't be expanded."

"If it's found to be safe by DEC, then we should have fracking," Skelos said. "It's a huge economic development for the southern tier of the state and means cheaper energy for the rest of the people of the state."

Many towns and communities upstate have banned hydrofracking, prompting at least two lawsuits by a landowner and an energy company who argue they have the right to drill regardless of local ordinances. Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and a member of the governor's advisory panel on hydrofracking said allowing communities to reject drilling would be a major shift for the administration.

"The concept of giving local communities more input is good," Moore said.

Cherie Messore, spokeswoman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an industry trade group, said even a limited start to hydrofracking would be good for landowners who had leased their land to energy companies.

"It's a positive step because in that designated area we know there are landowners who have a very strong interest [in hydrofracking]," she said.

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