Gas-drilling opponents rally outside the office of Sen. Dean Skelos...

Gas-drilling opponents rally outside the office of Sen. Dean Skelos in Rockville Centre (June 14, 2012). Credit: Howard Schnapp

The fracking trial balloon now floating out of Albany -- limiting the natural gas drilling to a few counties where municipalities want it, and not near the New York City reservoirs -- broadly makes sense, but it's premature.

For one thing, the state Department of Environmental Conservation hasn't finished its updated environmental impact study on high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The technology uses a lot of water, plus chemicals, to free gas from underground formations, such as the Marcellus Shale, which runs along the Southern Tier, on the Pennsylvania border, east to the New York City reservoirs' watershed. While the area outlined for drilling -- leaked in a news story -- excludes the watershed, the study that is needed to evaluate the statewide impact won't be done until later this year.

Then there's the question of whether municipalities can block fracking, or whether that's entirely up to the state. About 100 municipalities -- most of them outside the narrow area described in the leaked story -- have voted some form of fracking ban. Trial courts have found that they do have the power, but the issue is on appeal.

Finally, natural gas is plentiful right now. Drilling firms are happy to hear talk about opening any portion of the state to fracking, but they're getting a lot of gas from other sources, and prices are low. As the market gets better, companies are likely to drill first anyway in these counties on the Pennsylvania border, where the opposition is less and the supply is thought to be plentiful.

So, what's the point of the news leak? Yesterday, on an Albany radio show, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was asked about it, but he neither confirmed nor denied the story. "The truth is very often in the middle and the truth can be subtle," he said. Oh. That clears it all up, right?

The truth is that he'd love a solution that pleases environmentalists, drillers and property owners eager to lease their land for cash. The story may foreshadow how he wants that done.

The DEC put out draft drilling regulations before even finishing the environmental study; the leaked plan is also premature. But drillers are in no big rush right now. So the state should finish its study and get this decision right.


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