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After years of debate, New York State will ban fracking

Anti Fracking protesters demonstrate in front of the Waldorf Astoria as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits the hotel for a function on January 7, 2013 in New York City.
Anti Fracking protesters demonstrate in front of the Waldorf Astoria as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits the hotel for a function on January 7, 2013 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  1. After years of debate, Andrew Cuomo's administration has decided to ban fracking across New York State.
  2. Since 2008, New York has had a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from shale rock. But environmental commissioner Joseph Martens announced he will make the ban permanent next year.
  3. The announcement came after New York's Health Department released a long-awaited report on the health risks from fracking, which cited the risks of drinking-water contamination (among other things).
  4. "We don't have the evidence to prove or disprove the health effects.," Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said. "But the cumulative concerns of what I've read gives me reason to pause."
  5. Martens also said that the state was unlikely to reap huge economic benefits from allowing fracking — in part because 170 cities and towns in New York have already passed their own local bans.
  6. Despite the ban, New York still gets about half its electricity from natural gas — with 80 percent of that coming from fracking-heavy Pennsylvania.

New York's long debate over fracking

A short recap: Fracking is a process by which water, sand, and chemicals are injected underground at high pressures to crack open rock layers and release the oil or gas trapped inside.

Since the mid-2000s, US energy companies have been using fracking and horizontal drilling to extract oil and natural gas from vast underground shale-rock formations in places like North Dakota, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania:

Map_of_shale_oil_and_shale_gas_wells

(Post Carbon Institute)

Energy companies have long wanted to expand drilling into New York State, which sits atop the same gas-rich Marcellus shale formation as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their argument is that these states have seen a rise in jobs and revenue from the drilling boom — and New York should join in, too. (Some 30,000 people are directly employed by Pennsylvania's natural-gas industry, which saw a huge increase in gas production between 2011 and 2012.)

Another common argument in favor of fracking is that natural gas is a cleaner way to generate power than coal — producing fewer air pollutants and less carbon dioxide. New York now gets about half its electricity from gas-burning plants, a development made possible by the fracking boom in other states (mainly Pennsylvania). Indeed, state officials brag about how the shift from coal to gas has reduced New York's carbon emissions.

But fracking itself has become quite controversial. Opponents argue that the industry is often poorly regulated and that fracking can led to increased air and water pollution if done incorrectly. One investigation by ProPublica and WYNC found that faulty operations in New Mexico and Colorado had led to spills of chemical-laced wastewater. If similar incidents were to occur in New York, they could potentially contaminate key watersheds. (As David Biello points out, a variety of studies have found that fracking can be done safely — though often isn't.)

Some states, like Colorado, have dealt with these issues by imposing more stringent regulations on oil and gas companies. In New York, however, the idea of prohibiting fracking altogether has gained momentum. More than 170 towns and cities across upstate New York have used zoning ordinances to ban the practice (a practice recently upheld by the state Supreme Court.)

In 2008, New York's legislature and then-Governor David Paterson imposed a de facto moratorium on fracking — no new permits would be issued until the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) carried out a thorough review of the impacts of the practice on the air and water.

The current Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, has gone back and forth on the issue. In 2011, the DEC concluded that fracking could be done safely, and the administration initially began crafting regulations for the practice. Cuomo also proposed a program that would have allowed fracking in some (economically struggling) counties down near the Pennsylvania border.

But these moves met with a fierce backlash from activists, and Cuomo backtracked — asking in 2012 for yet another study on the health impacts of fracking before making a decision.

Why New York will make its fracking ban permanent

andrew cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That Health Department study on the potential risks of fracking has been repeatedly delayed — until this week.

You can read the full 184-page report here. It delves into studies on air pollution near oil and gas drilling sites (pollutants have been detected near some, though not all sites). Or the potential for methane to leak out of improperly-cemented wells into the water table — a fixable problem, though one that has been documented in Texas and Pennsylvania.

At a year-end cabinet meeting in December, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker outlined some of its findings. He noted that only a few studies had found harmful health effects from fracking operations — but the biggest concern was a paucity of long-term data on the subject.

"The bottom line is we lack the comprehensive longitudinal studies, and these are either not yet complete or are yet to be initiated," Zucker said. "We don't have the evidence to prove or disprove the health effects. But the cumulative concerns of what I've read gives me reason to pause."

New York's environmental commissioner, Joseph Martens, also talked about some of the potential negative impacts of fracking. Those included leaks of methane (a potent greenhouse gas that helps warm the planet) and the potential contamination of groundwater.

On top of that, Martens argued that the economic benefits of fracking in New York were unlikely to be large. The price of oil and gas has been plummeting of late, which would limit revenues. What's more, he said, roughly 63 percent of the land atop the Marcellus Shale would be off-limits anyway due to local bans by cities and towns.

And that's that. Next year, the Department of Environmental Conservation will release a final environmental impact statement on fracking. Once that is released, Martens said, he would issue an order extending the moratorium. This would make New York the first state with significant shale resources to prohibit fracking (Vermont enacted its own ban in 2012, but this was largely symbolic).

Further reading

Our full fracking explainer

Leaky gas wells — not fracking itself — are polluting water in Pennsylvania and Texas

Why oil prices keep falling — and throwing the world into turmoil

This story has been updated and expanded since it was first published.

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