| NEW YORK
NEW YORK A final hearing on proposals to lift a ban on drilling for natural gas in New York state drew a crowd of protesters on Wednesday opposing further energy development there.
New York City hosted the last of four hearings to discuss the Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) new rules that could open the state's borders next year to a controversial drilling technique known as fracking.
New York has had a three-year moratorium on fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand into gas-rich shale rock deep underground.
The technique would allow drillers to tap potentially huge reserves of gas in New York's share of the giant Marcellus shale formation. But environmentalists say fracking could contaminate drinking water for millions of residents.
As at previous meetings across the state this month, protesters, including actors Debra Winger and Mark Ruffalo, gathered in downtown Manhattan to express concern about the safety of water supplies, holding signs saying "Governor Cuomo, don't frack it up" and "Don't frack with New York".
"We have to be literally insane to contemplate fracking," New York state Senator Tony Avella told reporters outside the hearings. "Wake up Governor Cuomo, this is not going to provide jobs or revenue, but what it will do is poison the water supply for 17 million New Yorkers."
Development of the Marcellus and other U.S. shale deposits over the last few years has left the United States with a century's worth of supply. In neighboring Pennsylvania, production from the Marcellus has led to an energy boom that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is keen to replicate.
But fracking has been blamed for contaminating water supplies, as gas migrates from badly cemented wells into surrounding areas. A Pennsylvania well blowout in April spilled drilling fluids into local waterways, further stoking fears.
"Evidence from other states demonstrates that there are significant environmental risks associated with hydrofracking," State Senator Liz Krueger said in testimony to the DEC on Wednesday. "Every few months a new incident highlights the risk."
The gas industry says fracking can be carried out safely and that the jobs created will help jump-start New York's debt-laden economy. Drillers have complained that the new rules are too strict, especially with regards to drilling near watersheds.
"The DEC now proposes to impose excessive permitting and regulatory requirements with questionable environmental benefits," said Cathy Kenny, associate director of New York State Petroleum Council.
The DEC extended its deadline for comments on the fracking regulations for a second time on Wednesday, frustrating gas drillers keen to develop their New York acreage.
The end of the comment period, which was originally delayed until December 12, is now January 11.
"While today's extension of the comment period may seem inconsequential to some, it is in fact a continuation of the existing four-year ban on economic opportunity for Upstate New York," the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York said in a statement.
If the DEC's regulations are passed, new drilling permits could be handed out by next year.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; editing by Jim Marshall, David Gregorio and Dale Hudson)