Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat who handily defeated Republican gas-drilling supporter Dan Donovan on Tuesday, has said he will sue to stop the controversial drilling process of hydraulic fracturing -- until it is proven safe -- and aggressively go after drillers who break the rules.
"As Attorney General, I will build on the strong Cuomo environmental record and ensure that the office's environmental bureau remains active and engaged to investigate and protect our water supply," Schneiderman said in a statement. "Neither the state nor the federal government has determined that hydrofracking is a safe practice, and I will sue to make sure that no drilling takes place until those determinations have been made."
Several anti-fracking groups praised the stance and supported the former Manhattan senator during his campaign.
Landowners and the natural gas industry say his position is vague and lacks foresight.
Drilling in the state's portion of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is essentially off limits while the Department of Environmental Conservation reviews its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which will guide the permitting process going forward.
Environmental groups have been highly critical of the SGEIS and could mount a legal challenge against the DEC when a final version of the 800-page document -- which has been under review since July 2008 -- is finally released.
That task of defending the DEC under such a challenge would likely fall to Schneiderman's office.
"If the DEC comes out with the SGEIS, it's a state document. If that state document is attacked, it will be his job to defend it," said Scott Kurkoski, an attorney for Levene Gouldin & Thompson LLP who represents the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York. "His stance is somewhat concerning, but the residents of the state put a lot of trust in the Attorney General, and whoever is in that position will have to fulfill those duties."
Unless there are substantive changes to the final version of the document or a second public comment period is opened up, several groups have hinted a lawsuit is likely.
Susan Zimet, an Ulster County legislator and co-director of Frack Action, said Schneiderman would be able to bargain with the DEC if that were the case. Her group campaigned for the Attorney General-elect during his race, printing pro-Schneiderman literature and helping him land the endorsement of actor Mark Ruffalo, a Sullivan County resident who has spoken out against fracking.
"If the (final) SGEIS is flawed and the lawsuits have merit, he would be in a position to sit down with the DEC and say, 'They are right, we can't win this suit. There has to be some sort of settlement because you aren't going to win,'" Zimet said.
Zimet and other anti-fracking groups praised Schneiderman for taking a stand and bringing more attention to the issue.
"By the end of his campaign, this was one of his most important issues, near the top of his list," Zimet said. "We helped him raise the profile of the issue in his race and explain why it was so important to the hydrofracking battle."
An industry executive questioned whether the stance is an appropriate one to take for the state's next attorney general.
"It's disappointing that anybody in New York state government would take that position," said Brad Gill, president of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. "I guess I would take exception to that, because I think of the Attorney General's role of going after people who are doing wrong, and the industry has done no wrong in New York, in fact quite the opposite."