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Cuomo limits oil, gas drilling in Allegany State Park

As his administration moves to open up parts of the state to the controversial natural gas hydraulic fracturing industry, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday signed two pieces of legislation giving broad new protections against oil and gas drilling in Allegany State Park.

The park drilling measures were among 126 bills Cuomo acted on Friday. Among the 33 bills he vetoed was a measure that would have relaxed the state's ban on fireworks. Approvals included a bill making it less costly for cancer patients to receive oral chemotherapy treatments.

The governor also signed a bill aimed at creating new protections for workers of privately-owned juvenile justice facilities. The measure was spawned, in part, by the 2009 savage beating murder of Renee Greco in a Lockport group home by two teen residents.

The Allegany protections, supported by even some backers of the hydraulic fracturing to drill gas wells, are aimed at preserving a 65,000-acre park unique among all state facilities in that private ownership of subsurface oil and gas rights were still maintained nearly 100 years ago when the state acquired the sprawling lands.

The new laws also would appear to make it impossible for a Getzville energy company to ever proceed with plans it announced several years ago to explore for natural gas beneath 2,800 acres it says it has claims on in the Red House section of the park.

The two-bill package says that any oil and gas claim not actively used within the past 20 years shall be considered "extinguished" and the rights reverted to the state.

The legislation comes a couple years after U.S. Energy Development Corp. of Getzville, which has drilling operations in Western New York and Pennsylvania, said it had subsurface mineral rights in the park and wanted state approval to sink five test wells. The company did not return calls to comment this week.

A second bill Cuomo approved gives the state parks department broad new powers over any effort to explore or drill within Allegany State Park, and that any such oil or gas extraction "be undertaken with the strictest possible oversight."

The bills' approval comes as the Cuomo administration is under mounting criticism by environmentalists for its plans to permit the natural gas industry to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as an extraction method. The plan, hailed by business groups for the jobs that will be created, is still under a public comment period by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"I have lots of oil and gas wells in my district. I support oil and gas exploration -- but I don't feel that drilling is appropriate within the state parks," said Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who sponsored the legislation along with former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo.

"There's a big distinction," Young said of differences between drilling on public lands versus the fracking debate raging for private lands. "It's public land owned by taxpayers, and taxpayers should be able to enjoy it as a park."

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, which has an active chapter in Western New York pressing to protect the Allegany park, said no one particular company was targeted by the bill. But he said there has long been a lack of clarity about private ownership of subsurface areas below the park.

The second measure approved will strengthen the parks department's ability to regulate any possible drilling at Allegany. "The idea is to give the parks department the ability to protect its sensitive areas," Woodworth said.

On other matters, the governor vetoed a bill that would have made some forms of fireworks legal in New York. The legislation, opposed by firefighters groups, a consumer watchdog organization and the mayor of New York City, sought to permit the sale of sparklers, ground spinners, cone fountains and other non-explosive and non-aerial fireworks.

The Firemen's Association of the State of New York was among those pressing Cuomo to keep intact the state's 100-year-old fireworks ban.

The rejected bill would have legalized the sale of certain fireworks to people 18 and older. It also would have prevented local governments from enacting stricter fireworks ordinances.


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