Moratorium on gas drilling passes New York legislature

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York State Assembly on Monday gave final approval to a six-month moratorium on a controversial method of natural gas extraction while state and federal agencies review its possible health impacts.

The moratorium -- which calls for no drilling permits to be issued until at least May 15, 2011 -- was approved by the state Senate in August.

The legislation now heads to Governor David Paterson, who leaves office in January and has until the end of this year to sign the measure into law.

In an interview last week on a local radio program, Paterson indicated support for the bill, saying the state would not “risk public safety or water quality.”

High-volume hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into deep shale rock to free the gas trapped inside.

Part of New York state sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation that also extends across parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It has been among the most active U.S. drilling sites and by some estimates could hold enough gas to meet U.S. needs for a decade or more.

The natural gas industry has vigorously opposed the moratorium, saying it would halt most oil and gas drilling currently allowed, in addition to high-volume fracking.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an industry group, called the moratorium a “job killer” in a statement issued ahead of the Assembly’s vote.

Craig Michaels, the Watershed Program Director at environmental group Riverkeeper, said the legislature’s action created momentum for those pushing for tough regulations of the industry, including declaring large chunks of the state that are close to drinking-water supplies off-limits to drilling.

“Right now, we think any time-out is a good one,” said Michaels. “The gas isn’t going anywhere.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying the impact of fracking and is due to report in 2012. The New York state Department of Environmental Conservation is also reviewing how to regulate the practice in the state.

The vote in New York came late on Monday following a special session of the state legislature.

Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Dale Hudson