The New York Fracking Debate: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

As the last reverberations died from Governor Cuomo's 2012 resounding New York State of the State address, it must be noted that not a single syllable was uttered about the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). No doubt, Cuomo and his advisors - aware of how inflammatory the topic has become in New York State (NYS) - made the political decision to sidestep it, and his silence spoke volumes. Just outside the Albany convention center where Cuomo was speaking, an anti-fracking rally called loudly for a permanent state ban on the practice.

It's proven true that wherever fracking goes (in the United States or abroad), controversy follows, but in NYS the fracking debate fervor has really peaked. Recent statewide DEC hearings were overwhelmingly attended by constituents against the practice, but a significant portion of the population, especially in economically-stressed Upstate communities, are eager for its potential benefits: income for landowners with natural gas leases, creation of gas drilling jobs and new sources of tax revenues, as well as the belief that, with fracking, comes energy independence from foreign energy. Statewide polling shows a near split on fracking as currently proposed.

As the fracking rush sweeps the globe, New York's actions will have important implications for the national (and possibly the international) debate. Here are a few reasons why:

  • With drilling a possibility near the New York City watershed - the United States' largest unfiltered water supply which serves the Nation's most densely populated region and the world's largest media center - a sleeping giant of activity was awakened around this issue.
  • Parts of NYS could be sitting on a lot of natural gas. The state's southern tier overlays the expansive Marcellus Shale formation, which reaches through Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Tennessee, and which holds plenty of natural shale gas. How much? No one knows for sure, but the USGS estimate of the entire Marcellus Shale gives the almost incomprehensible figure of 84 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of technically recoverable natural gas, however uncertainty with all shale-gas estimates remains. (More on the problematic nature of shale-gas estimates in the final point).
  • NYS is the most prominent shale-gas state to impose a fracking moratorium to determine rules and regulations before drilling. Other states like North Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey have either official or de facto fracking moratoriums in place which are tied to further studies in some cases, but no other state poised to exploit such a massive shale play has actually restrained the oil and gas industry.
  • New Yorkers have witnessed but not experienced the potential effects of widespread fracking. New York residents have been given time to scrutinize the extraction technique and have learned about environmental and health related problems linked to it, particularly those involving water contamination. Resistance has grown with the release of the 2010 documentary Gasland. The safety, environmental and regulatory difficulties experienced by neighboring Pennsylvania, in the middle of its own natural gas rush, has raised major concerns for New Yorkers. With drilling a possibility near the New York City watershed - the United States' largest unfiltered water supply which serves the Nation's most densely populated region and the world's largest media center - a sleeping giant of activity was awakened around this issue.
  • NYS doesn't have a long history or culture of large-scale "extraction industries." For decades New York has had small-scale, conventional oil and gas drilling, but unlike Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, fossil fuel extraction has had minimal impact on the state's landscape and economy. The specter of drill rigs, compressor stations, heavy trucks and short-term workers industrializing lands has unsurprisingly caused some anxiety, especially for those who value the bucolic surroundings and lifestyle of New York's rural lands. People who don't want to be involved in drilling don't want it to affect their way of life.
  • The debate could limit the directions that future economies can take in depressed Upstate communities. Who gets to decide how much - and what kind - of the much-needed economic development in Upstate New York will occur? The people who live there or the political heavyweights in New York City-centric Downstate? After years of deindustrialization, globalization and Big Ag's farm consolidation both Upstate and around the country, most industries, from manufacturing to family farming have been gutted, leaving few opportunities behind. Many local pro-frackers look towards natural gas leasing and related job creation as a tremendous economic boon that would also serve to drive down natural gas prices with domestic production (energy security, cowboy!). The drilling industry has profits in its sites and is willing to spend big money to lobby in Albany and run a down-home media campaign to get fracking done on their terms. Others note that fracking has the potential to spoil other proximate industries rooted in the ground or dependent on clean water, like working farms, tourism and recreation, vintners and brewers.
  • The debate has huge implications for the energy future of NYS (and the United States). Natural gas is touted as the "greener" fossil fuel with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future. But for many clean and renewable energy advocates, natural gas is actually an excuse to extend the life of the fossil fuel economy. Why not start building towards a clean energy future in Upstate now instead of in some indefinite golden future? In addition, estimates of the demonstrable shale gas reserves in the United States are at best iffy and most likely not the "100-year supply" boosters claim.

Whatever direction NYS takes on fracking, the state will act as a bellwether for other states, because the Federal government assiduously avoids any kind of energy planning.