Inching closer to handing out natural gas drilling permits to interested landowners in New York, the State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) witnessed protest rallies at six of their regional offices June 15. Demonstrators want a halt on the permitting process until further scientific study is done.
The environmental group Frack Action organized the joint rallies with the support of organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, NYH2O, Clearwater, and others. The groups are backing a proposed bill (A.10490/S.759) introduced by State Assembly Member Steve Englebright and State Senator Joseph Addabbo that would create a moratorium on natural gas drilling using the controversial hydraulic fracturing technique (also known as "hydrofracking" or "fracking") until the US EPA completes an environmental impact study. Hydrofracking has unlocked natural gas deposits in previously unreachable shale rock formations throughout the United States, including the Marcellus Shale reserve that stretches from New York to West Virginia, leading to a gas rush in these states.
Six DEC offices were targeted for protest rallies - New Paltz, Syracuse, New York City, Avon, Schenectady and Buffalo - and the message was clear: Don't issue gas drilling permits without a detailed review of hydrofracking's impacts - the objective of the planned EPA study. Even though there are numerous reports of contaminated groundwater wells, air pollution and blowouts, no comprehensive study has been done to date. Water contamination concerns are especially high in the sensitive Delaware River Basin, which provides drinking water to over 15 million people and comprises a large part of the famously pure New York City water supply.
On the other side, the oil and gas industry, along with New York landowners looking for ways to earn a living in a depressed economy, want an end to what they see as the State's plodding decision making process. Permits will open up gas drilling and extraction, and offer upstate residents potential jobs as well as collection of funds from land sales, leases and extraction royalties. This looks especially good to land-rich residents during this economic downturn in areas of the state that have been experiencing economic decline for decades.
Not surprisingly, with each side committed to "bunking" and debunking the opposition's arguments, heightened by the new release of the anti-fracking documentary, Gasland, the real question might get lost: Does a moratorium on natural gas drilling in New York make sense? A few things to consider:
As you might have heard, the United States is currently mired in the muck of the BP oil gusher. Myriad reasons led to the oil rig blowout and resulting gusher, many of which implicate a lack of oversight of the oil industry by governmental regulatory agencies, not to mention America's utter addiction to all fuels fossil.
While comparisons can be drawn between the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster and recent natural gas events like the natural gas blowout in Pennsylvania linked to a failed blowout preventer - as well as a gas line explosion that killed three people in Texas - sometimes those points can be made too fine. Among the apt comparisons are the lack of system-wide preparation, legitimate contingency plans and undergirding it all, a lack of real understanding of the science and the risks involved. Both deep water oil drilling and hydrofracking share this disturbing connection, one expressed in an USGS fracking report, which states that while drilling research and technology have increased greatly, understanding of its impacts on water resources, for instance, have not.
At this juncture, most people wish that investigations over legitimate concerns had occurred before going ahead with deep water drilling in the Gulf. Now, with some foresight, New York is at a point where we can gain better understanding of hydrofracking's potential environmental risks - and account for them in our regulatory scheme - before moving ahead with a statewide gas rush. We have the option of rationally considering questions like: What's the probability of groundwater contamination? How should chemical-laden "produced" wastewater be disposed of? What is the probable air pollution?
The citizens who rallied across New York on June 15 don't believe these questions have been sufficiently answered. Neither do the Energy and Commerce Committee of the US Congress or the EPA - which is why the agency is conducting the much needed study right now.
A New York State hydrofracking moratorium until the completion of an empirical, science-driven EPA report could lead to both environmental and economic benefits by providing guidance to avoid negative ecological effects on New York's land, air and water. But perhaps the best defense of a moratorium on hydrofracking comes from the mouth of Range Resources natural gas company vice president, Ray Walker, who said, "My mother told me, and I'm sure your mother told you, it's always better and cheaper to do it right the first time."
Quite sensible. How to do it right the first time? More science, please.