New York State is the key battleground that will determine the future of fracking in the U.S., and January 11, 2012, is a turning point. The date ends the public comment period on proposed state regulations that will govern the process: drilling into deep Marcellus shales, fracturing the rock with water and chemicals to release natural gas, and disposing of the resulting wastewater that flows back up the well with the gas. When the comment period opened back in September, few industry or government leaders anticipated the massive antifracking movement that would arise, which has galvanized resistance in states nationwide.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which regulates drilling, has received 21,000 comments to its proposed rules. Officials there say they cannot remember receiving more than 1,000 comments on any prior environmental issue. Opposition to fracking has become a central plank in the Occupy movement, and the attention in New York has prompted other state leaders such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to stop or slow the process of allowing drilling until deeper scientific investigation is done. The primary concern is that the practice could contaminate drinking water supplies.

One New York congressman is using the DEC deadline to reenergize support for tougher national regulations. Maurice Hinchey has been trying to pass a bill known as the FRAC Act that would close a loophole in the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act that prevents the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking. He sent his objections to the DEC’s proposed state rules in a public letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The letter urges the governor to not just amend the proposed regulations, known as the revised draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, but to withdraw them altogether.

In the letter, Hinchey highlights 10 specific problems that he says must be addressed before New York allows drilling, including the lack of a full assessment of public health impacts and the lack of a comprehensive wastewater treatment plan that details where and how large amounts of flowback water will be treated or disposed. Last week scientists said that the injecting of wastewater deep underground for disposal was the likely cause of a magnitude 4.0 earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio. The letter also says that the rules do “not account for new information that has been discovered about the environmental, public health and economic risks associated with the natural gas drilling activity.” And Hinchey says similar issues are being ignored nationwide.

Health experts have gone public, too. On January 9 leading U.S. medical experts attending a technical conference on how best to study the epidemiological and public health aspects of shale gas production released a statement saying that fracking should “be paused so that necessary research can be done into the potential harmful effects on human health.” Adam Law, a doctor at Weill Cornell Medical College and the founding board member of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, said “no one should be unleashing even more fracking before we have the scientific facts.”

Unfazed, the DEC indicates that it hopes to present final rules this spring, although making sense of 21,000 comments might take longer. Governor Cuomo still favors drilling because it would bring jobs to his state, but the public pressure to protect drinking water has become so intense that he has not made any recent announcements supporting fracking, as he was doing before the comment period began. Unwilling to watch idly, gas industry groups on Tuesday hand-delivered thousands of letters to Cuomo and state legislators noting that fracking would create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil, and defending the technique as safe.

If DEC somehow did a turnabout, it could endorse a ban, or a temporary ban until the EPA completes detailed investigations about contamination, preliminary results of which are due later in 2012. The DEC could instead issue rules that are so strict that they amount to a de facto ban, or that at least go further to protect water supplies than the draft regulations would. For example, although proposed rules would not allow fracking in upstate areas that supply water to nine million people in New York City, drilling can take place very close to those reservoirs. Much larger setbacks could be required, to keep drilling much further away. Other states where fracking is widespread and caused problems, such as Pennsylvania and Texas, could potentially revise their own regulations once they see the final rules that New York has writ.

Photo courtesy of popefelix on Flickr