The fight to ban fracking in New York is back.

State lawmakers on Friday introduced new legislation to expand the state's ban of the controversial drilling process to extract natural gas to include a newer practice that uses carbon dioxide to extract methane and circumvents the current policy.

Fracking was first prohibited in the state a decade ago, and permanently banned in the 2021 state budget.

Top Democrats in the Legislature want to expand the law to bar the use of CO2 as a medium to frack natural gas in New York. Texas-based company Southern Tier CO2 to Clean Energy Solutions has its sights set on drilling from the reserves of natural gas in upstate's Marcellus and Utica shales — using carbon dioxide instead of water.

"This is hydrofracking called by a different name," said bill sponsor Sen. Lea Webb, a lifelong Southern Tier resident. 

The legislation would make it illegal to push methane out of shale using high-pressure liquified carbon dioxide. 

Environmental advocates argue the practice requires horizontal drilling into shale, which releases toxic hydrocarbons like methane and cancer-causing vapors that threaten the public health of workers, surrounding communities and the environment.

"The fracking process, the extraction of methane, regardless of the solution used is the problem," said Assembly sponsor Anna Kelles, a Democrat from Ithaca. "This is just the current form."

Southern Tier Solutions has sent letters to landowners in Broome, Chemung and Tioga counties offering a $10 lease for them to make a profit after they extract methane and storage CO2 on their properties. Last month, company president Bryce Phillips told Spectrum News 1 the company will strive to lease as many as 1 million acres to support up to a dozen 300 megawatt power plants, and to help power the Micron semiconductor chip manufacturing facility in Syracuse.

Southern Tier Solutions has declined to publicly say how many people have signed leases with the company, or who is funding its operations.

"We have to do something and we most certainly will," Webb said during a virtual press conference Friday. "It is important folks even know what this means."

As the company looks to expand across the state, Democrats focused on reducing New York's carbon emissions want to stop the practice before it takes off.

Lawmakers like Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo wrote to the state Department of Environmental Conservation about the company's plans, and argue its project is not in keeping with the state's emission reduction goals set under the Climate Act. The agency responded Dec. 8 in a letter that the CO2 fracking process the company describes on its website has not been tried in New York to date.

Democrats leading the charge to include the proposal in the budget, including Senate Finance Committee chair Liz Krueger, are hopeful they've started the push early enough to get in front of the issue, citing little coordinated support of the company or pushback to expanding the ban.

"I see no organized resistance to this," Lupardo said. "I don't necessarily see the [oil and gas] industry rallying around this group. I think we're going to want to get this on an agenda as soon as possible before it gets any additional traction."

Academy Award-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo is again bringing the issue into the spotlight to push back against the natural gas industry. Ruffalo was a staunch advocate who fought to ban fracking in the state in the late 2000s until it first became law in 2014. 

"Make no mistake about it: If they start in the Southern Tier, that's not where this is going to end," Ruffalo told reporters Friday.
This is going statewide because the Marcellus and Utica shales cover most of this state."

Gov. Kathy Hochul has not indicated if she supports the proposal, but it could make budget negotiations depending on what the Legislature includes in the Assembly and Senate's counter budget proposals.

Republican lawmakers who stood against the original fracking ban are already taking issue with expanding it. 

Sen. Tom O'Mara, ranking member of the Finance Committee, said it's too soon to ban the practice, and setting regulations should be left to scientists and experts — not elected officials.

"This is one aspect that's new that should be explored," O'Mara said Friday. "And it should be reviewed by scientists, not by knee-jerk, far-left wing Democrat members of the New York state Legislature in Albany."

O'Mara represents Chemung and Tioga counties where the Southern Tier is soliciting landowners, including many communities adjacent to the Marcellus and Utica shales. 

He says the project could be a potential boost to the declining upstate economy.

"Across the Southern Tier where we're a very struggling economy, to not be able to take advantage of the most abundant natural resource that we have is very concerning to me," O'Mara said.

Southern Tier Solutions did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday about the proposal.

The company has not contacted or applied for permits with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to date, according to DEC officials Friday.

The department does not have enough information about Southern Tier Solution's conceptual project to know what specific permits would be required.

"Natural gas fracking that has the potential to harm the environment and public health has no place in New York state," the DEC said in a statement.

DEC officials said the agency would thoroughly review any permit applications for drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shales in compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state standards to protect public health and the environment.

"In order to best protect public health and the environment, New York state and DEC have stringent and enforceable regulations in place that ensure activities requiring a permit do not result in unacceptable risks," according to the DEC. "Among the laws and regulations are requirements that the drilling, casing and completion (including hydraulic fracturing) program adopted for any well be such as to prevent pollution."

Article 23 of the state's Environmental Conservation Law prohibits high-volume hydraulic fracturing and places a moratorium on gelled propane hydraulic fracturing.