The state of New York officially banned fracking on Monday, following up on promise made by Governor Andrew Cuomo last December to prohibit use of the controversial drilling technique.
"Environmentally, it is a watershed moment that a state of the stature and population of New York has made the decision to prohibit fracking," Kate Hudson, Director of Cross-Watershed Initiatives at Riverkeeper, told VICE News.
The state's Department of Environmental Conservation conducted seven years of review of the economic and environmental impacts of fracking. The agency concluded that fracking could diminish freshwater resources, cause soil erosion, contaminate groundwater supplies, disturb wildlife, and result in higher greenhouse gas emissions. The report also found that the expected employment, income, and tax brought about by natural gas development in the state would be substantially less than originally projected, especially when taking into account the mitigation efforts that would be required to balance environmental damage.
The southern part of New York sits atop a portion of the Marcellus Shale formation, the largest natural gas field in the country, extending from Ohio and West Virginia into Pennsylvania and New York. Just two states — New York and Maryland — have banned fracking within state lines.
'I would not really call it a study.'
Fracking, or horizontal-hydraulic fracturing, includes two processes: drilling a well vertically below ground as well as horizontally and injecting a pressurized mixture of sand, chemicals, and water into a well. The technique has allowed energy companies to break apart tight shale rock formations, allowing the release of previously inaccessible deposits of oil and natural gas.
While this relatively new process has changed the face of the oil and gas industry and helped to catapult the United States into the world's leading fossil fuel producer, the technique has faced fierce criticism from environmental groups.
Apart from being an extremely water intensive process, fracking also threatens groundwater supplies if the chemical mixture leaches into aquifers.
Responsible disposal of wastewater — the injected chemical mixture that flows back to the surface once a well is drilled — is another concern. Drilling companies often pump wastewater below ground but, like the drilling process itself, this risks contaminating groundwater supplies. Companies also store waste water in open air pits in order to let it evaporate, thereby releasing harmful, often carcinogenic, chemicals into the air.
That's not all. Fracking has been associated with spikes in the seismic activity in several states. The New York report cited a series of earthquakes in Poland, Ohio between March 4 and March 12, 2014, ranging between 1.0 and 3.0 in magnitude, which were attributed to fracking operations nearby. Oklahoma officials blame fracking for an increase in earthquake activity. Indeed the state is now the most seismically active in the nation.
Finally, environmentalists argue that by making it easy to recover vast quantities of natural gas, fracking de-incentivizes a robust transformation to renewable energy sources.
"In the end, there are no feasible or prudent alternatives that would adequately avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts and that address the scientific uncertainties and risks to public health from [fracking,]" the report says. "The Department's chosen alternative to prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the best alternative based on the balance between protection of the environment and public health and economic and social considerations."
Riverkeeper's Hudson lauded the approach.
"The decision was based on the consideration of scientific information and the lack of scientific information," she told VICE News. "That the uncertainties weighed in favor of the ban rather than against it, is a reflection of the precautionary principle… which is, if there are uncertainties, then you do not take the step."
The oil and natural gas industry, conversely, called the report unscientific and rumor-based.
"I would not really call it a study. It is more of a rumor and speculation document that says, 'Well, there is this problem and that problem,'" said Larry Nettles, a partner at Vinson & Elkins, an international law firm focused on the energy sector. He told VICE News the report's findings were severely undercut by the results of another study on fracking conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published earlier this month.
The EPA study concluded that fracking did not lead to "widespread, systemic impacts" on the country's drinking water, even though the agency highlighted numerous cases where fracking operations contaminated water supplies. Unsurprisingly, the EPA study was well received by both environmental activists and industry groups, which each interpreted it as confirmation of their positions on fracking.
Nettles said that the ban would hamper economic growth in New York and prevent large property owners in the rural areas from exploiting the resources under their land. However, he did not comment on the report's claim that estimated employment and tax benefits for drilling were overstated.
Watch the VICE News documentary, "What the Frack?"
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