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New York State Just Banned Natural Gas Fracking

Citing public heath concerns and little economic benefit, Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration said Wednesday it would issue a statewide prohibition on the controversial drilling technique.

by Matt Smith
Dec 17 2014, 8:35pm

Image via AP/Mike Groll

New York State won't allow the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas after a state review found too many "red flags" raised by the controversial technique, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday.

High-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) has fueled a nationwide boom in US natural gas production over the past decade. But critics say that the large amounts of toxic chemicals used in the process pose a serious threat to drinking water supplies, wildlife populations, and agricultural production.

In Pennsylvania, oil and gas production is now a $34 billion industry that supports 300,000 jobs, according to industry figures. But New York State officials placed a moratorium on the practice six years ago until environmental and health regulators could conduct a review. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) gave it the thumbs-down on Wednesday, presenting their findings to Cuomo in a year-end cabinet meeting.

Howard Zucker, Acting Health Commissioner, told Cuomo that he asked himself whether he would live near a fracking site or let his family drink water drawn from the area.

"After looking at the plethora of reports … my answer is no," Zucker said.

Cuomo called that argument persuasive.

"If you don't believe your children should live there, then I agree your duty is to suggest no child lives there," he said.

The agencies' report found there were "significant uncertainties" about the health risks and added that public health might be "adversely" impacted by fracking.  

In a comment posted on twitter, Cuomo said, "As much as existing studies have found health risks, there are many red flags & questions that still need to be answered."

The findings were quickly criticized by America's Natural Gas Alliance, which represents independent drilling and production companies.

"This is an ill-advised decision that denies New Yorkers the opportunity to take advantage of the many environmental and economic benefits that natural gas offers," said Paul Hartman, the group's Northeast director. "This has always been a political, rather than a public health decision."

New York is "forgoing the advantages its neighbors enjoy from natural gas production," Hartman said. 

But DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said projections of an economic boom as a result of the process were "highly questionable" given that natural gas prices are already at historic lows.

"We've always been a state that's been very protective of our natural resources," Martens said. "We couldn't conclude that there were not significant public health risks."

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of highly pressurized water, sand, and chemicals to break apart layers of rock deep underground, allowing hydrocarbons trapped within those layers to be pumped out. 

But concerns about the chemicals used to break up those rock formations — which include more than two dozen that are considered hazardous — have led to intense public opposition in many quarters. The US Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an extensive study of the potential for groundwater contamination around fracking sites, while other scientists have questioned whether wells, pipelines, and storage tanks release methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

New York's decision is expected to become binding in January, when Martens said he would sign off on the official environmental impact statement. Jason Hutt, a partner at the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several energy companies told VICE News, "There will most assuredly be litigation."

"I personally think it's a shame that they came to that conclusion, given that I don't think the science supports that," he said. "And there's a lot of people in the state of New York who are experiencing a significant economic downturn that would benefit from the jobs and opportunity created by the oil and gas industry."

But Cuomo said the state needs another, cleaner way to boost its sagging upstate economy.

"I've never had anyone say to me, 'I believe fracking is great.' Not a single person in those communities," he said. Instead, he said people tell him "I have no alternative but fracking, and if you say no to fracking, I have no alternative."

Environmentalists quickly hailed the decision.

"Governor Cuomo has kept his promise to let only sound science — not pressure from powerful oil and gas companies — be his guide on fracking," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a written statement. "Mounting scientific evidence points to serious health risks from fracking operations. New Yorkers have made it loud and clear that we want to keep this reckless industry at bay."

Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham University law professor who challenged Cuomo in the state's Democratic primary earlier this year, said the prohibition was "the most extraordinary news."

"It's a total surprise," Teachout told VICE News. "Andrew Cuomo will probably deny that politics played any part of it, but I see this powerful grassroots movement as really having changed things."

Actor Mark Ruffalo, one of the most prominent fracking opponents, let out a whoop in a video he posted on Instagram and thanked Cuomo and other state officials for the decision.

"And thanks to all the beautiful dedicated people in the anti-fracking movement who used science, their guts, their brains, and their hearts to make this day a reality," he said before adding, "Love you." 

The end of fracking is closer than you think. Read more here.

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl