New York Bans Hydraulic Fracking

On Wednesday, December 17, New York Governor Cuomo announced that hydraulic fracturing would be banned in the New York State. After long debate, which had continued for several years, Governor Cuomo’s decision drew praise from opponents to fracking while drawing strong criticism from industry representatives.

Fracking had been initially seen to be a significant potential source of revenue and jobs in New York. Fracking increases the amount of shale from which natural gas could be extracted by making horizontal drilling possible in the gas-bearing layers. Pumping in water, sand, and other chemicals, the shale is fractured under high pressure, releasing more natural gas than is usually available. This type of drilling became economically attractive when the prices of oil rose to over $100 per barrel. In some western states, especially Texas and North Dakota, fracking is used to extract oil from shale. This has been successful and has contributed significantly to the recent drop in oil and gasoline prices.

There has been considerable opposition to fracking by groups that held many protests over the past few years. These groups expressed their concerns over the possible environmental and health effects, the possible impact on groundwater, and the effect on the tourism industry. Environmental groups were pleased with Wednesday’s decision. Reuters quoted Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice as saying, “We hope that this determined leadership Governor Cuomo has displayed will give courage to elected leaders throughout the country and the world.”

The basis for the Governor’s decision were the results of the health impact assessment conducted by the New York State Department of Health. Dr. Howard Zucker, the Health Department Commissioner, said that there is not enough information to make a determination that fracking is safe. Zucker said, “The potential risks are too great, in fact not even fully known, and relying on the limited data presently available would be negligent on my part.” In the New York State Department of Health press release, Dr. Zucker is additionally quoted as saying, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done.”

Governor Cuomo commented that this is “probably the most emotionally charged issue I have ever experienced.”

Governor Cuomo’s decision will make 12,000,000 acres of the area overlying Marcellus Shale unavailable for fracking. The Marcellus Shale deposit is one of the largest natural gas deposits in the United States and extends down through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia. This will make New York the first state with significant resources to impose a ban on fracking. The other state that bans fracking is Vermont. The ban comes at a time when gas prices have dropped precipitously, averaging $2.60 per gallon as of last Friday.

The findings of the Health Department will be provided to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is expected to institute the final legal measures next year.