New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is reportedly considering a plan that would ban hydraulic fracturing (fracing) in all of New York with the exception of five counties along the Pennsylvania border: Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga. Even within those five counties, however, fracing would be strictly limited under the Governor’s scheme. Specifically, fracing permits would only be issued for wells located in communities that had not acted locally to prohibit the process – in other words, towns within the five counties still could exercise "home rule" to ban fracing by zoning amendment, or otherwise. Cuomo also would ban fracing in Catskill Park, near any drinking water aquifer, in any nationally-designated historic districts and initially would limit it to the “deepest” areas of the Marcellus Shale.
Governor Cuomo has been under intense pressure from both sides in the fracing debate, and his idea – which an anonymous New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) official deliberately leaked to the New York Times – was an attempt to take the temperature of both sides to a possible compromise. It appears that Cuomo’s team sought to please environmentalists by banning fracing in most of the Empire State; assuage industry stakeholders by permitting fracing in certain counties with significant Marcellus plays and where public opinion appears to be leaning in favor of natural gas development; and build support with local officials from around the state by implicitly reaffirming "home rule" rights to ban fracing. Initial reaction to this "trial balloon" idea was largely negative from the anti- fracing side – which has been trying to build momentum for a full statewide ban – but recently has drifted towards tepid support as fracing foes may see it as their best chance to stop fracing in most of New York. Stakeholder response has been fairly neutral, with some companies expressing optimism because the plan allows fracing at all – an indicator of just how tight the debate has become in New York right now.
Cuomo’s plan would give everything to nobody, and something to everybody – providing considerable political cover to both the Governor and NYSDEC. For this reason alone, it is a plan that may have the best chance of passing through the regulatory, legislative, legal and public opinion gauntlet that currently exists for fracing in New York.