Backgrounder: Hydraulic Fracturing

The word “fracking” has officially assumed its place in New York’s political lexicon.

A broad swath of the state sits atop part of the Marcellus Shale, an underground repository of natural gas. Geologists with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation estimate that the entire formation, which also spans parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, contains anywhere from 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a fuel that has been shown to emit less pollutants than coal or oil. But the process used to harvest the fuel, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, entails blasting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals underground. Environmentalists contend that this allows deadly chemicals to contaminate water supplies, and the energy industry decries regulations blocking access to a lucrative new source of fuel.

In December, then-governor David Paterson vetoed legislation that would have banned fracking, instead issuing an executive order that imposed a statewide moratorium on new permits until July 3, 2011. That has given both sides plenty of time to spar over the fate of the natural gas in New York.

The Argument For

Supporters of hydrofracking argue that New York is neglecting billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of new jobs. They also portray natural gas as an attractive alternative to dirtier forms of energy like coal and oil — in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the pro-fracking Joint Landowners Coalition of New York State stressed natural gas as a way to meet President Barack Obama’s call to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. State Senator Thomas Libous has sponsored a website touting the benefits of natural gas.

A 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study concluded that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat to drinking water,” which led Congress to delegate responsibility for regulating fracking to the states (a subsequent New York Times investigation suggested that political pressure warped the EPA’s findings). New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is set to release an analysis of hydrofracking this summer, but the Independent Oil and Gas Association recently sent Cuomo a letter urging him to expedite the review process.

“Every day we lose is another lost economic opportunity – another day that neighboring states experience increases in employment, sales tax, income tax and business growth,” the letter said. “New York has a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship with the oil and gas industry, and we are absolutely confident that relationship will continue to flourish as natural gas from the Marcellus Shale is harvested.”

Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger recently sponsored legislation that would have required companies engaged in fracking to disclose the chemicals they use. After the bill died in committee, Senate Republicans chided Krueger for overstepping her authority and maintained that the Department of Environmental Conservation has the final say.

“This is a roadblock to delay the DEC with coming up with an answer on whether or not we can use this procedure in the state of New York and possibly, if it is safe, create thousands of jobs in an area of New York state that is hurting for economic development,” Sen. George Maziarz said.

The Argument Against

Hydrofracking relies on a combination of pressurized water, sand, corrosive salts and carcinogenic chemicals to release gas trapped between deeply submerged layers of shale. Critics say that the hazard of these chemicals seeping into water supplies is too great and that states do not have reliable mechanisms for disposing of the waste. A recent Congressional report detailed how fracking allowed millions of gallons of carcinogenic chemicals to permeate wells across 13 states, and Pennsylvania has endured a stready stream of fracking-related accidents.

“Where a single accident can contaminate the water supply for over eight million people, [that] outweighs any possible economic gain drilling within the watershed would bring,” State Senator Tony Avella said in a statement after introducing a bill to ban the procedure. “We must be vigilant in protecting our water supply from any potential risk of contamination.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission, a federally administered interstate body of which New York is a member, drew the ire of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman when it proposed regulations that would allow fracking. The Delaware River Basin supplies New York City with about half of its drinking water, and Schneiderman has threatened to sue the federal government if it does not conduct a full review as mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Both the law and common sense dictate that the federal government must fully assess the impact of its actions before opening the door to gas fracking in New York,” Schneiderman said.  “New Yorkers are correctly concerned about fracking’s potential dangers to their environment, health and communities, and I will use the full authority of my office, including aggressive legal action, to ensure the federal government is forced to address those concerns.”

What’s Next?

While lawmakers await the Department of Environmental Conservation’s findings, lobbyists have been busy. An analysis by Common Cause found that spending on the issue reached an all time high in 2010, with firms opposing a moratorium outspending their opponents by about four to one. Meanwhile, DEC commissioner Joe Martens has been taciturn about the review, leaving open the possibility of a sustained moratorium. He said ascertaining fracking’s repercussions for public health is the organization’s paramount concern.

“If we’re not satisfied that we can address all those [health and safety] issues, then permitting may not go forward,” Martens told WNYC. “But the converse is also true.”

Backgrounder: Hydraulic Fracturing