Last month, in exciting news for environmentalists and rural public health advocates, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration banned the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also know as fracking. A contentious issue for many years in the region, fracking would pull from the Marcellus Shale, a large deposit of gas and fine-grained sedimentary rock. The shale is mostly present upstate, an area filled with rural communities and tourist destinations.
The politically charged issue of fracking was either destined to alienate Cuomo from environmentalists or place him in the pocket of oil and gas companies. In the end, to avoid as much politicization as possible, Thomas Kaplan of the NY Times explains that Cuomo relied heavily on his expert staff, including Dr. Howard A. Zucker, his state health commissioner, who like so many others read the empirical data and understands that fracking is just too dangerous:
Dr. Zucker said his review boiled down to a simple question: Would he want his family to live in a community where fracking was taking place?
His answer was no.
“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”
Environmental groups are pleased with the decision, speculating that it will set the stage for other states with significant shale gas reserves to do the same. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), for example, said:
We are thrilled the Cuomo administration has made the right call to ban risky fracking in the state of New York,” said Heather White, EWG’s executive director. “New Yorkers deserve the environmental and public health protections that this ban puts in place. This is a bold and important decision that will set the tone for state governments across the nation.”
We, too, feel that this is yet another sign that voices speaking for human welfare and environmental conservation are being heard. Kaplan touches on how powerful grassroots and nonprofit efforts were in swaying Cuomo:
As he traveled around the state, Mr. Cuomo was hounded by protesters opposed to fracking, who showed up at his events and pressed him to impose a statewide ban. Opponents were also aided by celebrities who drew attention to their cause.
The ramifications of the ban are still playing out. It could be the beginning of a new movement against fracking. The New York decision has reinvigorated the anti-fracking fight in California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and, according to Food and Water Watch, there are bans on fracking in almost 270 municipalities across 24 states, indigenous communities, and the District of Columbia.
Of course industry groups are fighting back, challenging many of these citizen-enacted bans. While these continued fights in courtrooms might not make national news, according to Jack Healy of the New York Times they signal the next wave of action on fracking.
Because the cases are being fought one by one at the state level, they are not expected to set any immediate nationwide standard on whether homeowners and local leaders have the power to keep drilling rigs out of their towns. But they are being watched as legal litmus tests as more governments plunge into the acrimonious debate over fracking . . ."
Complicating the debate even further is the fact that New York, with its previously limited access to its own natural gas, has always relied heavily on Pennsylvania for its natural gas. Joseph De Avila of the Wall Street Journal explains how the ban may move the problems of fracking onto New York’s neighbor, while New York still reaps the benefits of a relatively cheap energy source. Dr. Walter Brasch, author of Fracking Pennsylvania, recently outlined his top 11 problems with fracking in Pennsylvania in the Bradford Era newspaper , including but not limited to, environmental and infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) degradation, the severe unlikelihood that the industry will ever be taxed at a rate that can mitigate the damage it does, the inevitable price drop that comes with high production, which could lead to funders pulling out and jobs being lost, and so on, and so on. Brasch’s commentary exposes the instability of fracking as an economic driver for the state along with its environmental and human health threats.
Pennsylvania’s government does not have a stellar history of addressing these health issues, according to Katie Colaneri of NPR’s State Impact series. She tells the compelling story of a resident who had to move because of the severe health threats posed by her water due to fracking; a claim that the state authorities outrightly denied. However, Colaneri also points out that the New York ban has the potential to change Pennsylvania’s outlook on fracking as well. Pennsylvania governor-elect Tom Wolfe publically stated that he wants to change the state’s tune on how it deals with the effects of fracking:
I want to have my cake and eat it, too,” he said. “I don’t want to do what New York did.”
Wolf wants a new tax on drilling to pay for a lot of his priorities like education. He also wants to create a health registry to measure the potential impacts of heavy drilling.
“In the absence of a strong concern for health, you have problems,” he said. “I think we ought to do this right.”
We at Wellness Warrior applaud New York’s decision and acknowledge that this is one big step towards a completely clean energy future. We hope that it continues to be a catalyst for change. It will take continued research and collective action to address ways in which address our energy, environmental, and human health needs. Let’s keep up the good work!
PHOTO: via flickr
- Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State via New York Times
- Cuomo Administration’s Decision To Ban Fracking Is A Big Win For New Yorkers, Grassroots Activists via Environmental Working Group
- Heavyweight Response to Local Fracking Bans via New York Times
- Fracking in Nearby States Benefits New York via Wall Street Journal
- After New York ban, Pennsylvania renews focus on fracking health impacts via NPR State Impact
- The Fracking Boom is a Fracking Bubble via Bradford Era
Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson