By Megan Bungeroth & Mayara Guimaraes
The debate over hydrofracking has been raging in New York for years, and it may be coming to a head this year as Gov. Andrew Cuomo contemplates allowing the controversial drilling technique in the state for the first time.
The state currently has a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, but the governor has recently indicated that he would be open to allowing the process in certain areas of the state near the border with Pennsylvania, where fracking is already underway.
Fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from shale rock. Large volumes of water, chemicals and sand or ceramic beads are pumped into rock at high pressures, fracturing it and releasing the gas deposits that can then be piped to the surface. It’s a process that has been in practice in the oil and gas mining industries for decades, but a surge in natural gas production in recent years has put the latest hydrofracking methods into the national spotlight, and many New Yorkers don’t like what they’re seeing.
“While I understand the economic arguments in favor, those arguments do not take into account the potential costs—both economic and environmental—associated with fracking,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger. She’s been a vocal opponent of fracking in the state, as have many of her Upper East Side constituents.
“The experience of other states with ground and surface water contamination and well blowouts, concerns about the contents of fracking fluids and the significant damage to existing infrastructure that could result from allowing fracking are simply too great,” she said.
Problems in other states—contaminated drinking water being the gravest among them—have made New Yorkers especially cautious about allowing the process at home. The potential benefits, however, are what have been swaying some upstate lawmakers and landowners to lobby to allow fracking. Aside from the royalties offered to landowners in economically depressed areas of the state where farming has fallen by the wayside, allowing fracking has the potential to create jobs and tax revenue.
There’s also a large U.S. supply of natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal or oil. “You have to look at what’s available and what’s viable,” said Alan Herbst, a principal with Utilis Advisory Group, a New York-based oil and gas industry consulting company that has worked with many clients on fracking for natural gas.
“This checks off a lot of boxes. It’s clean, it’s cheap, it’s domestically available. Is it the perfect solution? Maybe not. But it’s something that’s been developed and it will lead up toward energy independence,” he said.
Some argue that energy companies should be investing in alternative fuels instead of pushing for more fracking.
“We’ve known that we need clean, renewable energy for a sustainable planet for a long time. But now, fracking and other extreme extractions are putting us in a precarious position because they’re giving us more fossil fuels at a very high price to our precious water, climate, ecosystems and environment,” said Elizabeth Kelley, a volunteer with the local anti-fracking group United For Action.
“They are delaying renewable energy development and they are taking climate change to the brink.”
Herbst said that while the industry and the state should be looking at other forms of fuel as well as large-scale energy conservation, natural gas will continue to be a big part of the United State’s energy plan for the foreseeable future.
“You can’t be against everything,” Herbst said. “You just can’t produce the power you need with solar and wind. It’s too expensive and it’s not what you call baseload—you can’t rely on it 24 hours a day.”
Upper East Side Assembly Member Micah Kellner has acknowledged the potential benefits of accessing the state’s natural gas reserves but urged the state to hold off until a thorough review can be completed.
“You are not talking about drilling for oil in places that have been used to drilling,” Kellner said. “We are talking about drilling in places throughout New York State—some of the last untouched land in the Northeast—that have never been disturbed.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking all of these factors into account as it conducts a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on hydrofracking—essentially a report on the potential impacts—and considers the 79,700 comments it has received from the public over two separate comment periods. The report should be completed by the end of the year.
The DEC recently came under scrutiny from several local lawmakers, including State Sens. Krueger and Tom Duane, for releasing some information about their study to the gas industry before making it public. Emily DeSantis, DEC’s spokeswoman, defended that decision.
“DEC has regularly and routinely met with environmental groups, industry, local government representatives and other stakeholders as it develops the final SGEIS for high-volume hydraulic fracturing,” DeSantis wrote in an email.
“Under the State Administrative Procedures Act, state agencies are required to assess the impacts of the regulatory action on the regulated entity. Agencies cannot gather this data without holding meetings and engaging in other forms of communication with the regulated community prior to proposing the regulation. Nothing in the regulations changed as a result,” she said.
Opponents of fracking argue that even strict regulations might not be enough to sufficiently protect the state’s water supply, and that the industry will find a way to get around the regulations regardless. Gas companies are seeking to drill the Marcellus Shale, the rock formation under which most of the region’s natural gas deposits sit. It also encompasses the watershed region in the Catskills from which New York gets most of its fresh water, and many argue that in order to protect the water supply, the state needs to maintain the outright moratorium on fracking that is currently in place.
Daniele Gerard, president of the Upper West Side’s Three Parks Independent Democrats, said there should be a hard line to protect the state’s water. “Water is a precious natural resource. We shouldn’t be injecting it with poisonous chemicals to obtain yet another fossil fuel. Energy companies should be using readily available technology to move wholesale to renewable energy and conservation measures,” she said.
The DEC won’t say what factors they are weighing in crafting their recommendations on hydrofracking, citing the ongoing scientific studies, but DeSantis did say that “if high-volume hydraulic fracturing moves forward in New York, it will do so with the strictest standards in the nation.”
That alone may be enough to keep the industry at bay, some argue, as other states open up for hydrofracking with more lax regulations.
“Given the intense interest and degree of concern expressed to date…it’s difficult to imagine that those restrictions would ever be relaxed regardless of pressure from industry,” said Telisport Putsavage, an environmental and energy law attorney with Sullivan & Worcester and former assistant counsel at the DEC.
“There are multiple shale formations and hydraulic fracturing opportunities in the United States, and I believe industry will ultimately gravitate toward the areas where resistance and regulation is less extensive, rather than continue to fight against what will most likely be the strictest regulatory regimen in the country.”
Tags: Alan Herbst, Andrew Cuomo, Department of Environmental Conservation, Hydrofracking, Liz Krueger, Micah Kellner, Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, United for Action, Utilis Advisory Group
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