New Yorkers Keep a Watchful Eye on Fracking Developments

Anti-fracking activists demonstrate outside of Governor Cuomo's office this past August in Manhattan. Photo by Adam Welz for CREDO Action/CC by 2.0

Tensions are heating up between environmentalists and energy proponents as governor Andrew M. Cuomo prepares to release a decision on whether the Empire State will regulate the drilling technology known as hydrofracking. If it does, New York will join a handful of other states allowing some level of “fracking,” including Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and several Midwestern states.

Developers are eager to explore the state’s portion of the prized Marcellus Formation, a shale bed so large it spans most of the Appalachian Basin. Drilling proponents say the area holds more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, offering a vast untapped source for domestic energy production and job creation in many regions that are struggling economically. According to The New York Times, Marcellus could power all US homes for 50 years at recent national average residential energy rates. 

Hydraulic fracturing is controversial because the environmental risks are uncertain. It involves injecting a mix of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into shale rock formations thousands of feet underground to break the rock surface and release natural gas that can be used for energy.  Gas leaks and water contamination are the biggest concerns. A 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Bill made hydraulic fracturing devoid of the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing many environmental health and safety regulations to remain exempt from typical oil and gas industry laws. 

For example, the chemicals used in the fluid mixture do not have to be publicly disclosed, but are thought to contain carcinogens such as benzene and other volatile organic compounds. Additionally, the gas wells extend about 8,000 feet below the earth’s surface and pass through drinking water aquifers roughly 1,000 feet deep, increasing the potential for water contamination. 

At this point, fracking is not completely technologically sufficient either. Of the one to eight million gallons of water needed to frack a well, only 30 to 50 percent of that water is recovered. The wastewater can be reused, but it also has to be shipped off to treatment facilities, which heightens the risk for transport leakage and water contamination, again.

Proponents argue that fracking is a greener energy alternative to coal that is relatively clean. It is cheap, the chemical mixture can be reused, and they argue that the technology can be made foolproof. Economically speaking, supporters argue that fracking can provide jobs and commerce to local areas. 

Energy developers are particularly interested in drilling New York’s Southern Tier after they had much success across the border in Pennsylvania. According to the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, fracking provided 88,000 jobs and seven billion dollars in annual revenues. 

Fervor flared in March as New York state officials appeared to be heading towards a decision on whether to regulate fracking, which would either open New York’s door to the oil and gas industry in the Marcellus or ban them indefinitely. Then on March 6th, the Democratic-heavy New York State Assembly passed a two-year moratorium on fracking in a 95-40 vote. The moratorium calls for a halt on any fracking operations in New York until May of 2015, allowing time for an independent review known as the Geisinger Study to consider how fracking effects human health, and the completion of two separate studies on how what the extraction method does to drinking water quality. 

For the moratorium to take effect, however, it must pass through the Senate and the Governor’s office. The Assembly approved similar moratoriums in 2008, 2010, and 2011, but it never reached the Senate or Governor’s desk. Therefore, this moratorium essentially remains an extension of the de facto ban on fracking that has been caught up in the Senate for nearly five years. 

This time around, the Senate may follow the Assembly’s lead and approve the two-year fracking delay, reports the Washington Post. The Independent Democratic Conference, which shares the Senate with the Republicans, agrees with the Assembly’s decision that the Geisinger and other studies must be completed before Governor Cuomo makes a decision. 

“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, told the Washington Post, “We are going to do this the right way, or we are not going to do this at all.”

Governor Cuomo says he’ll wait to make a decision until he receives recommendations from his health and conservation departments, but hasn’t issued a deadline. 

New York State Health Commissioner, Nariv Shah, says he won’t wait for studies to be completed   the Geisinger Study could take 20 years to finish and not all funding is in place   and instead, should have a recommendation to Governor Cuomo within weeks. According to the Huffington Post, he met with researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Geisinger Study in the past few weeks to learn about preliminary findings and will base his recommendation on them.

A Quinnipiac University poll shows 46 percent of New Yorkers oppose fracking and 39 percent support it. Presently Cuomo, a 2016 Democratic Presidential Candidate, appears to be leaning toward the majority, according to a statement released by his office last Wednesday. 

“People matter, and what people think and feel matters. Is it necessarily determinative? No. But as I’ve said before, the Petroleum Council says disregard public opinion and disregard what people think. I understand that’s what they say,” said Cuomo, according to Buffalo Business First. “What I say is, I suggest that they consider, ‘Why do people think that way? Why do they feel that way? Why do you have people who are hundreds of miles from the scene of where any fracking would take place who have these kinds of fears? Why do you have the state Legislature, where if they could vote on this I’ll bet you four-fifths would vote against it?’”

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