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With Unresolved Health Risks and Few Signs of an Economic Boon, Cuomo to Ban Gas Fracking

12/18/14








After years of gauging the environmental, medical, economic and political risks of hydraulic fracturing, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is moving to ban this method of extracting natural gas from shale deposits in New York State.

[Update, 9:30 p.m. | See the end of the post for an excerpt from the state health study that underpinned the decision.]

It had been clear for years, as I wrote in 2012, that there was little political or economic impetus to act quickly, even though I felt (and still am convinced) that gas extraction from shale can be done safely and cleanly if properly regulated.

I would have preferred an approach allowing some carefully supervised drilling where communities were supportive — which Cuomo had pondered several years ago. See my conversation with Josh Fox, the director of “Gasland,” for more on my view.

But for a governor, data on drilling risks are just one of a host of considerations. The issue is similar to President Obama’s quandary on the Keystone oil pipeline. (It’ll be interesting to see if low oil prices prompt the president to tip the balance there toward rejection. On Tuesday, Obama announced he was barring oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.)

Cuomo faced sustained, forceful and creative opposition from his left (the image below is one example of the creativity) and, as the upstate journalist Tom Wilber made clear in his blog and book, “Under the Surface,” there were few signs that New York would be able to provide sufficient oversight to justify drilling. (Read here for more on that question.) On top of this, courts were increasingly upholding community efforts to enact local bans.


A montage created in 2012 by Mark Ohe showed what a gas drilling site using hydraulic fracturing would look like near the Mount Kisco, N.Y., home of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.













The natural gas news is nicely summarized by The New York Times and Associated Press. The A.P. story had this excellent section laying out how the decision was unveiled, with the prime factors being “red flag” issues described by the state health commissioner, Howard Zucker, and scant signs of an economic benefit described by Joe Martens, the environmental conservation commissioner:

Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized the findings of environmental and health reviews that concluded that shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing carried unacceptable risks that haven’t been sufficiently studied….

The gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation underlying southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by fracking, or high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure.

The drilling technique has generated tens of billions of dollars and reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it’s also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation, heavy truck traffic and health impacts.

New York has had a ban on shale gas development since the environmental review began in 2008.

Zucker said he had identified “significant public health risks” and “red flag” health issues that require long-term studies before fracking can be called safe. He likened fracking to secondhand smoke, which wasn’t fully understood as a health risk until many years of scientific study had been done.

Martens noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight and the large areas that would be off-limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections, and local prohibitions. He said those factors combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than had been anticipated.

I reached out to a variety of people involved in, or tracking, the New York gas-drilling fight for reactions. The first response are below, with more added as they come in.

But first here’s a helpful excerpt from the No Fracking Way blog written by Chip Northrup, a former oil and gas investor who has long fought against drilling in New York (and who’s been on Dot Earth before). Alluding to the arguments of Cuomo’s commissioners Zucker and Martens, Northrup noted:

Both of them cited the greatly reduced area where fracking would actually take place in New York – since most upstate towns ban it.

And the only towns that might allow it are in an small area by the Pennsylvania border that is not currently economic. So, frankly, simply not worth fracking fooling with.

Which makes perfect sense from all standpoints: environmentally, economically and politically.

Bruce Selleck, a geologist at Colgate University who is deeply conversant with both the shale and gas down below and politics on the surface, offered this trenchant reaction:

My suspicion is that Andrew Cuomo sees little chance of being nominated for president in 2016, and 2020 is such a long time away that making this decision now keeps his close supporters happier. Low natural gas (and crude) prices also make it an easier call. Now we have four new casinos, but no new rural economic development. What a great state!

Walter Hang, an environmental mapping consultant and nonstop anti-drilling campaigner, wrote this:

This stupendous victory was won by an unrelenting grassroots citizen campaign powered by amazing press coverage that systematically highlighted the public health and environmental concerns of shale fracking. That effort has won a victory unparalleled in the annals of the American environmental movement.

Here’s John Cronin, formerly the Hudson Riverkeeper and currently senior fellow for environmental policy at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies (we teach one course together):

I take Governor Cuomo at his word — fracking will run afoul of New York’s interests in public health and the environment. The case is strong. I believe he is convinced by the evidence, which has only been made stronger during the prolonged regulatory decision period. There is no political advantage to Cuomo’s decision. No realistic presidential candidates from either party are articulating strong anti-fracking positions. There is no possibility there will be a future gubernatorial upset over the issue. Mainstream environmentalists will never abandon him in favor of a Republican or independent challenger. He is alienating parts of the public, and monied interests, for whom regional fracking is a voter getter. Sometimes decisions are made for the very reasons that officials articulate.

Steve Everley, who for years has represented the industry position on gas in the Marcellus through the Energy in Depth blog, sent a long note from which I’m extracting this excerpt (I’ll post the full note in the comment string):

What strikes me about the Cuomo administration’s use of health risks to restrict fracking is that, just a few short years ago, the same New York Department of Environmental Conservation declared, “we’ve concluded that high-volume hydrofracking can be undertaken safely, along with strong and aggressive regulations.” Other than political considerations, what changed?

Certainly the DEC would claim that “new” studies show the health risks are too great. But there were studies before DEC’s 2011 proclamation that suggested there are concerns that need to be addressed. Isn’t that why we have regulations – to make sure risks and other concerns are addressed? There have also been studies showing that development is protective of public health, to say nothing of the fact that natural gas is a far cleaner alternative to some of our other power and heating options. New York is the fifth largest consumer of natural gas in the United States, but I heard nothing from DEC suggesting that it would be imposing a moratorium on the use of gas produced by fracking elsewhere.

If this were a real health threat, and not motivated by politics, then wouldn’t the Cuomo administration be pleading with its neighbors in Pennsylvania to stop producing natural gas? I must have missed that portion of the press conference.

The decision to ban any economic activity – be it oil and gas development or any other industry – suggests that the process itself is inherently unsafe and cannot be done safely. No one who is interested in objectivity could make that claim about hydraulic fracturing. Gallup reported earlier this year that the top state in overall wellbeing was North Dakota, fueled by the massive economic opportunities unleashed by the oil boom. That ranking included factors such as health and access to basic necessities. If allowing fracking posed insurmountable health problems, then how are people in North Dakota doing so well?

Somehow, we’ve discovered ways to develop oil and gas in ways that are not only protective of public health, but actually lead to net benefits in terms of well-being. It’s not that we couldn’t replicate that in New York, it’s that the DEC didn’t even want to try.

In his email, Everley noted that he had relocated from the Northeast back to Dallas earlier this month.

In many ways, that move may well reflect the inevitability of what just happened.

Added 6:04 p.m. | Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Cornell University and president of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Inc., sent this note:

Two wise New York State governors: Paterson for imposing the de facto moratorium in 2008 when there were 6 (six) peer reviewed papers in the literature on shale gas impacts; Cuomo for understanding that by 2010 there were still only 6 (six) and he demanded that the science dictate his decision.

There are now over 400 papers, about 3/4th in the last two years. The science played catch-up to policy in other states–it is dictating policy in NYS. An annotated Compendium of those papers is at

http://concernedhealthny.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CHPNY-Fracking-Compendium.pdf

and an analysis of the state-of-the-science on health impacts is at

www.psehealthyenergy.org/site/1233

Added 6:22 p.m. | Tom Wilber, the author and journalist focused on the Marcellus gas fight, wrote:

This decision is consistent with Cuomo’s progressive politics that got him to where he is now. It’s a bold move and I optimistically take it as sincere attempt to overcome inertia of fossil fuel dependency. But it needs to be accompanied by practical reforms/initiatives in energy development & consumption….

Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was directed at him personally. At one point, he told Susan Arbetter, host of Capitol Press Room, that it was the most effective political action campaign he had seen. (I have a note out to Susan for the date of that show) Activists, both institutional and grass roots, promised to step it if he allowed a single well.

The other thing was the influence of the Home Rule decision, and the falling price of natural gas made this politically much easier. He would have a hard taking this bone from landowners back when landmen were at their doors with big checks in hand. Nobody is currently seriously looking at shale gas exploration, much less development, in New York with the prices as low as they are and the encumbrances of Home Rule. [Here’s Wilber’s blog post.]

Added, 9:30 p.m. | Here’s an excerpt from the Department of Health review of research on shale gas and illness, which found too many unresolved questions and plausible risks to endorse high volume hydraulic fracturing (abbreviated as HVHF in the report):

Based on this review, it is apparent that the science surrounding HVHF activity is limited, only just beginning to emerge, and largely suggests only hypotheses about potential public health impacts that need further evaluation….

As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of HVHF on public health is unlikely to ever be attained. In this instance, however, the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State.