Frack Yes? New York Ready to Compromise on Natural Gas

Sarah Laskow | July 7th, 2011

Machine used for hydrofracking (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

The day before Americans took off to celebrate  the July 4th weekend, the governor’s office owned that Gov. Cuomo supported hydrofracking in New York State — under certain conditions. Hydrofracking or, simply, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that allows natural gas companies to get at long-sequestered sources of gas. The horizontal hydrofracking technique that the gas industry wants to use in New York involves drilling deep into the ground and turning the drill sideways into shale rock formations. By creating cracks in the shale, this technique releases gas, and drilling companies pump tanks of chemical-laden water into the holes in order to keep the cracks open and allow gas to bubble up to the surface.

In Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states where fracking has been used, communities near drilling sites have found their water contaminated with methane and other noxious gases. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study on the connection between fracking and such environmental degradation. Gas companies claim there is none.

New York has waited longer than most states to permit gas companies to start mining its gas resources. Gov. Cuomo says he believes fracking can be done safely and that New York’s approach will be a balanced one. The Department of Environmental Conservation will release to the public this week a 900-page draft document detailing the potential environmental impacts of fracking. The agency’s decision to allow fracking in some areas of the states “was based on rigorous testing, research, facts and science, not politics or ideology on the issue,” Gov. Cuomo said last week. The members of the High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Panel, appointed by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens could also be said to be a balanced group: It includes business leaders, former politicians, industry representatives and environmentalists.

At first glance, it seems that the panel is weighted towards environmentalists: seven of the panel’s 13 members are affiliated with environmental groups that include the National Resources Defense Council, the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Environmental Defense Fund, and President Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality. On closer inspection, however, the panel is weighted not so much towards environmental advocates as towards people committed, like Cuomo, to a balanced approach to fracking.

On fracking, environmentalists divide into two camps. Larger groups that work on a national or international level (Greenpeace, NRDC, Sierra Club) support increased natural gas production although, like Cuomo, they want a close watch kept on gas companies and strong regulations governing the process. These groups see natural gas as a low-carbon alternative to coal. It is often referred to as a “bridge fuel” that will help slow climate change. Smaller groups voicing environmental concerns about hydrofracking, like the Coalition to Protect New York, tend to oppose it completely. They are not ready to sacrifice their communities’ air and water quality or to change inalterably the landscapes they live in for an energy solution that even its supporters admit is only incrementally better than coal.

The environmentalists on the DEC advisory board come from the first camp. NRDC, for instance, has been a strong national ally to local anti-fracking groups, but its institutional outlook on fracking is that “Natural gas has an important role to play in America’s energy future.” Like Cuomo, NRDC is looking for balance on natural gas policy. The New York League of Conservation Voters also believes “that natural gas will play a critical role in the eventual transition to a clean energy future.” Environmental Advocates of New York is the only group native to New York that has been enlisted in the advisory board and the only group that echoes the fervor with which local opponents to fracking have been fighting against the practice.

Fracking opponents now have three angles from which they are fighting back against gas companies. As the state government moves to open up land to fracking, it will open up a 60 day comment period: In the last round of study, the comment period attracted more than 10,000 contributions. Local groups have also despaired of finding a sympathetic ear in Albany or in Washington and have been working to institute fracking bans town by town, city by city, county by county. And Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is also taking seriously the possibility that, unlike national environmental groups, natural gas companies are not interested in balance. He’s pursuing a case against the federal government that digs into the potential health and safety impacts of natural gas. Gov. Cuomo has said he would not support fracking unless he believed it could be done safely. He’s apparently convinced; Schneiderman, it seems, still has questions about whether a balanced approach is possible.