Appalachian Basin

Shah Says Natural Gas Health Review Almost Complete

NOTE: Cross-posted on MDN

Jim Willis, editor of the Marcellus Drilling News, takes a look at the latest developments on New York’s natural gas health review and potential extension of a two year moratorium.

An interesting development in the “As Cuomo Dithers” natural gas soap opera. Freshly back from a road trip to confer with researchers studying the health effects of natural gas development, New York State Commissioner of Health Nirav Shah appeared at a press conference Monday with Gov. Cuomo. In a surprise announcement, Shah said he will render his judgment on the question of whether to allow natural gas development “in weeks.” Cuomo himself made some encouraging remarks at the presser too, including his belief that the two-year moratorium bill passed by the NY Assembly last Wednesday is going nowhere fast.

NY Health Commissioner, Nirav Shah, with Gov. Cuomo

NY Health Commissioner, Nirav Shah, with Gov. Cuomo

You may recall we are currently waiting for Shah’s review and official opinion on whether or not development as proposed under the rules by the Dept. of Environmental Conservation would negatively impact “public health.” Shah and his assistants went on a road trip to find out what they could from natural gas health studies now under way (see Deadline for NY Fracking Regs Slips Again…Or Does It?). One of those studies, being performed by Geisinger Health Systems, has only just received $1 million in funding and preliminary results won’t be available for at least a year. Anti-drillers celebrated and took that to mean natural gas development in New York will be on hold for several more years. Shah and Cuomo’s comments from Monday may have burst their bubble…

 New York’s health commissioner said Monday he won’t wait for completion of any of the pending gas drilling studies, which could take years, and instead plans a recommendation to the governor “in weeks” on whether the state should approve hydraulic fracturing.

Health Commissioner Nirav Shah also said he met with researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania within the past two weeks.

A person close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo had told The Associated Press in February that the governor discussed the Geisinger health study as key research for his decision and helped cool momentum toward making a decision to allow a limited number of test wells that would be closely monitored.

Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who had spoken to Cuomo about the study, said in an interview that he believes the Geisinger review is pivotal.

“Nobody ever said that we were waiting for the studies to be finished,” Cuomo said Monday. “The Department of Health was going to be looking at those studies and see if there was anything constructive in those studies.”

Instead, Cuomo said they would discuss early findings with some researchers. Preliminary results of the Geisinger study are expected within a year.

Cuomo will make a decision on whether to allow the potentially lucrative drilling in the economically distressed Southern Tier. But he has faced increasing opposition from environmentalists who claim “fracking” will threaten public health and drinking water.

“We will call them up, look at them, talk to them and find out,” Cuomo said. “Maybe they are useless, in which case they are useless. Maybe they have some information that is instructive, in which case we will use the information.”

That’s what Shah said he did with the Geisinger and the EPA.

“I anticipate we will be done in the next few weeks,” Shah told reporters at Cuomo’s news conference Monday. He said he sees no scenario in which New York would delay a decision for the final results of the studies.

The Geisinger study will look at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near wells and other facilities that are producing natural gas from the same Marcellus Shale formation that New York would tap. Unlike most studies funded by advocates or opponents of hydrofracking, this study would be funded by the Sunbury, Pa.-based Degenstein Foundation, which is not seen as having an ideological bent.

Cuomo also said Monday that he doesn’t believe bills will pass the legislature seeking to delay a decision until those studies are completed. The Assembly’s Democratic majority wants a two-year moratorium, while the Independent Democratic Conference, which shares control of the Senate, has a bill that would delay action until the Geisinger report and lesser studies are complete.

“I don’t believe that bill passes,” said Cuomo, who insists science will determine his choice. “We’re not looking for a political resolution here.”*

*AP/Syracuse (NY) The Post-Standard (Mar 11, 2013) – NY health commissioner will make recommendation on gas drilling in weeks

It’s certainly not yet time for landowners to break out the champagne, but Monday’s comments from both Cuomo and Shah are some of the best news landowners have had in many weeks.

Then again, we have been led down the primrose path by Cuomo a few times before…


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