New York AG candidates back natgas drilling moratorium

Fri Sep 10, 2010 6:37pm EDT

* How will next attorney general enforce regulation?

* May be forced to support a law he/she disagrees with

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK, Sept 10 (Reuters) - All of the candidates running to be the next New York state attorney general support some form of moratorium on natural gas drilling and put the burden on industry to prove such drilling can be done without endangering drinking water.

In interviews this week with Reuters, all five candidates running in Tuesday's Democratic Party primary said they supported in principal a drilling ban in areas like the New York City watershed, which serves 9 million people.

The five all back a moratorium on drilling pending further study. But the sole Republican candidate, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan -- who will compete against the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 2 election -- supports a year-long moratorium for further study, but opposes specific bans.

"If there is a safe way of doing it, it should be done because the amount of jobs and the clean energy we would be able to gain from the drilling would be very valuable to our state," Donovan said.

New York state sits atop part of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, and gas companies such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK.N) have clashed with environmental groups over what regulations will be needed to ensure drilling can be done without harming drinking water.

At issue is the extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and diluted chemicals into shale rock, breaking it apart to free natural gas.

The New York state Senate passed a nine-month moratorium in August, effectively passing the decision-making power on the matter from Governor David Paterson to his successor, who will also be elected in November.

The Assembly has not voted on the measure.

Sean Coffey, a former trial lawyer who is one of the Democratic candidates for attorney general, said protection was paramount because error was inevitable.

"It's a process that involves humans and machinery," he said

The Democratic field also includes Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice; Eric Dinallo, a former assistant attorney general under Eliot Spitzer; and two state legislators -- state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and state Senator Eric Schneiderman.

POSITIONS ON THE MERITS

The attorney general's job description states the office holder represents state agencies as well as acts as a guardian of environmental laws. One of those agencies is the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which will set out drilling guidelines in its environmental impact statement expected next year.

Environmentalists say that raises a possible tension.

"The first decision the attorney general is going to have to make is whether to defend DEC in court when multiple parties litigate against the state," said Craig Michaels of the environmental group Riverkeeper, adding he can "almost guarantee" the issue will end up in court.

"Which is more important to the attorney general's office? Upholding the environmental laws or representing the state agencies that are tasked with carrying out those laws?" he asked.

Brodsky said he is concerned about the risks posed by drilling, but said that from a legal standpoint the attorney general would absolutely have to defend the DEC's position.

"I don't care what people's positions are on the merits of hydrofracking. If the DEC issues regulations and permits and those regulations are challenged in court by the citizenry, the attorney general will be defending" the DEC, Brodsky said.

Asked if that meant supporting a law he disagreed with, Brodsky said: "Lawyers do it all the time, right?"

That sentiment was echoed by Eric Dinallo, who served as deputy attorney general under Spitzer, but Dinallo added that there was room for the attorney general to influence the environmental body behind the scenes.

Jim Smith, spokesman for industry group the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said he looked forward to bringing experts to the attorney general's office to explain that the technology is safe and environmentally sensitive.

"Long ago, the discussion has become not about the facts and about yelling at one another," he said.

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