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How wide will fracking door open?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo floated a trial balloon last week when aides privately outlined a plan to allow hydraulic fracturing on a limited basis in five Southern Tier counties – and only in communities that support the controversial natural gas drilling technique.

If it doesn't get shot down – and the reaction from critics was predictably unhappy – it could be the opening that the drilling industry has long awaited in its push to tap into the vast quantities of natural gas trapped in layers of shale a mile or so beneath the surface.

Tom Wilber, a newspaper reporter-turned author who has chronicled the development of the drilling boom in Pennsylvania and its stagnation in New York, says the plan is vintage Cuomo – a way to start drilling on a smaller scale while also respecting the wishes of individual communities, more than 100 of which have said they want nothing to do with fracking. Several dozen others have passed resolutions supporting drilling. "These are the communities that really need it because they're impoverished," Wilber said.

"The governor is hearing them, evidently," said Wilber, who has followed the gas drilling controversy for years, first as a reporter for Gannett Corp.'s upstate newspapers, including the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, and most recently as the author of an interesting and balanced new book chronicling the shale gas issue, "Under the Surface."

"He's saying, ‘We're going to split this up,' " Wilber said last week, during a stop in Western New York to speak at a historical society convention and give a talk at the Talking Leaves bookstore in Buffalo. "It's a way to get permitting going."

If Cuomo's proposal advances – and Wilber isn't convinced that it will – it would shatter the 4-year-old moratorium on the type of horizontal wells that are needed to tap into the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica shale once state regulators complete work on new regulations to govern the controversial drilling technique.

"We've made no decision with hydrofracking," Cuomo said in an interview on an Albany radio station last week. "DEC has to analyze ?the science, and they haven't finished analyzing the science."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation released its most recent draft of the proposed regulations a year ago, and the agency still is working on revisions. Drilling wouldn't start until those new rules are in place, and Cuomo's proposal, first outlined in the New York Times, would limit activity to about 50 wells.

"The regulators are really in a tough position," Wilber said. "There's a lot of money at stake. The governor obviously is pushing them to resolve this somehow. And there's no way to resolve this without making a lot of people unhappy. It's so polarized."

In New York, the Marcellus Shale stretches for more than 20,500 square miles beneath 23 southern counties. The most gas is likely to come from areas where the shale is thickest and deepest underground, primarily in areas along the Pennsylvania border, especially in Broome and Tioga counties and parts of Chenango and Chemung counties. Those four counties are where Cuomo would allow drilling, along with nearby Steuben County.

With hydraulic fracturing, drillers use millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and a cocktail of sometimes-hazardous chemicals, that is pumped under high pressure into a well to blast open fissures in the shale and allow the gas to escape. The process, however, is highly controversial, with the gas industry claiming the technique is safe and critics pointing to dozens of serious accidents – from spills to explosions and contaminated waste water – and thousands of others that were less severe as proof that it isn't.

Wilber, retaining the reporter's veil of neutrality, isn't taking sides. "I'm on the pro-transparency side, and often times, that puts you on the activist side of the fence," he said.

Still, even with all of the drilling that's led to the drilling of more than 3,500 wells in Pennsylvania's portion of the Marcellus, Wilber believes the activity is just beginning. "It's still brand new. As you see this reach its potential, you could see 60,000 wells" from New York to West Virginia, he said. "The scope and intensity of this is beyond anything we've seen."

That raises a host of potential problems, not the least of which is how to safely treat the millions of gallons of wastewater produced at each well at a time when there aren't enough facilities to do so. "One thing I don't think people have an appreciation for is the amount of waste and how it can be handled," Wilber said.
Beyond that, how do New York officials make sure the state's stiffened regulations are followed at a time when the DEC doesn't have nearly enough staff to monitor the drilling? "It's a shell of the agency it used to be," Wilber said.

New York's approach, which would ban drilling in vast areas of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds but permit it in other places, also raises a logical question: "If it's unsafe in the New York City watershed, why is it safe in Broome County?" Wilber asked.

And if drilling does commence, how will the anti-fracking movement respond? "If there's drilling, what will they do?" Wilber asked. "Will they take to social disobedience?"?

email: drobinson@buffnews.com