By Edward Krudy
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York State Assembly passed legislation on Wednesday that extends the moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state until May 2015 and requires further studies on the environmental impact of the practice better known as fracking.
A moratorium on fracking has been in place in the Empire State since 2008 due to concerns the process, which involves pumping chemical-laced water and sand deep below the surface to extract natural gas from shale, can contaminate water supplies.
The current legislation applies to the Utica and Marcellus shale gas deposits, some of the most significant in the country. It requires a full review process, including a new study to look at the potential public health impact.
"We will not sit idly by and endanger the health and safety of our communities by rushing necessary health and safety reviews," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement before the vote.
The New York State Assembly, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of about 2 to 1, passed the legislation by an unofficial count of 95 to 40.
The legislation passed by the Assembly must still be approved by the state Senate, where its passage might be complicated by a power-sharing arrangement between Republicans and Democrats. But a Democratic majority in the Senate may be enough to send it to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is also a Democrat, for final approval.
"The good news is this is only one step in the process, it takes three steps to become law," said Tom West, an attorney at the West Firm, which represents oil and gas companies in the state and is calling the move a de facto ban.
Over the last decade, U.S. energy companies have advanced hydraulic fracturing techniques, unlocking vast quantities of natural gas and oil trapped in shale rock. But fracking has become a highly divisive issue in New York where communities are weighing the economic benefits against environmental concerns.
"I think it is a victory for everybody who thinks that science should rule the day," said Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, an organization that is opposing the extension of fracking without further studies into its effects.
"While there is a lot that is known about fracking and its impact there is still a lot that is not known, particularly when it comes to health impact," she said.
Advocates of fracking, however, see the legislation as little more than delaying tactics, arguing that the procedure is safe and would bring much-needed economic benefits to upstate New York.
"New York has squandered billions of dollars of economic opportunity by dragging its feet on this issue," said West. "Why do we have elected officials who are responsible to all of the citizens of this state doing something foolish like passing a moratorium?"
(Reporting by Edward Krudy, editing by Jan Paschal and Nick Zieminski)