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Environmentalists Are Gearing Up for the Next Phase of New York's Fracking Wars

Emboldened by New York's new ban on hydraulic fracturing, environmentalists plan on ramping up the fight against the state's oil and gas industry.

Peter Rugh

Photo via Flickr user CREDO.fracking

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing on Wednesday, environmentalists were elated. After six years of relentless protests against fracking, the findings of the state Health Department's report confirmed what activists have been saying all along: That the potential environmental consequences—the threat of flammable water, dangerous hydrocarbon emissions near drilling sites, radioactive waste—are too costly for the state to ignore.

But activists say they aren't done protesting the oil and gas industry. Now they plan on ramping up the fight pledging against other natural gas developments in the state, which they say could bring New York the same negative health and environmental impacts associated with fracking, even if fracking itself is banned.

The decision to ban fracking ends a drawn-out battle over whether the state would use the technique to tap its reserves of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale Deposit that it shares with Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. New York has had a moratorium on fracking since 2008, when the state first began to consider granting permits to drill. Since Cuomo took office in 2010, environmental activists have been stalking the governor, trying to get him to make the ban permanent.

Their wish was granted yesterday with the release of the long-awaited Health Department study from New York's Health Department, which found the practice — which involves pumping a mixture of chemicals , sand, and millions of gallons of water into earth to fissure shale and extract fuel — too risky to regulate.

In a letter accompanying the study, the state's acting Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker wrote that fracking poses "significant uncertainties" to public health and the environment, and cast doubt that the state could implement regulations that would mitigate against its potential negative impacts. The state should prohibit the practice, Zucker recommended, "until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health" that it poses.

"It just goes to show you when you actually pay attention to science, science speaks very loud," said Josh Fox, whose 2010 documentary film Gasland raised early red flags about the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing in the US. "It says very unequivocally to the governments and the governors of other states that they are willfully ignoring the scientific majority in order to protect oil and gas companies' profits over the health and safety of their own citizens."

Predictably, proponents of the state's oil and gas industry fumed, arguing that New York is losing out on the opportunity to cash in on the domestic energy boom. They have framed hydraulic fracturing—and the natural gas that it could extract—could be a job creator and an economic boon to struggling small towns in the state. According to the nonpartisan government watchdog, Common Cause, companies looking to drill in New York "spent $1.1 million on campaign contributions and $15.6 million on lobbying" in the state between 2007 and 2013.

"Today's action by Governor Cuomo shows that New York families, teachers, roads and good-paying jobs have lost out to political gamesmanship," Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. "This is the wrong direction for New York. Robust regulations exist at the federal and state levels nationwide for natural gas development and environmental protection."

According to the government watchdog CREW, hydraulic fracturing is actively takingplace in 21 states. A number of municipalities—including Boulder, Beverly Hills, Denton, Texas, and more than 200 towns and counties in New York—have used local zoning ordinances toprohibit fracking, but New York is only the second state to do so, after Vermont.

In her remarks, Moreau pointed to neighboring Pennsylvania, where 6,600 fracking wells have cropped up since 2005 to tap into the tight gas reserves in the Marcellus shale, as an example of the economic boost New Yorkers are missing out on. There, she said, "more than $630 million has been distributed to communities since 2012—including more than $224 million in just 2014. These once economically poor areas are now thriving. The commonwealth has also benefited from over $2.1 billion in state and local taxes generated by the shale energy industry."

But environmental activists say Pennsylvanians have also paid a heavy price for fracking. In August, state environmental regulators revealed that they have documented 248 cases of water contamination that can be tied to fracking. The figure could be even higher, given that Pennsylvania's Department of Health, according to a now retired administrator, instructed employees not to return phone calls from residents who complained of illnesses related to the drilling in their backyards. Meanwhile, PA's Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, hasdescribed the state's Department of Environmental Protection as "underfunded, understaffed and inconsistent" in its approach toward regulating drilling.

"Pennsylvania rolled out the red carpet for the gas industry and said 'we'll figure out the rules as we go along,'" Fox said. "As a result you have people getting sick. It's a disaster situation. All the industry has accomplished in every state but New York is shut out democracy and shutout citizen participation."

At times it appeared as if Cuomo was leaning toward allowing fracking to proceed in New York. In 2012, he considered a plan that would have allowedfor fracking in New York's Southern Tier, as a way to boost the upstate region's struggling economy. But opponents of fracking accused the governor of trying to create "sacrifice zones," in which the state's poorest residents would bear the brunt of drilling's environmental costs. Even on Wednesday, Cuomo seemed to distance himself from the decision, telling reporters that he was deferring to his health and environmental advisors on the decision.

Never the less, environmental activists gathered outside the governor's office in midtown Manhattan yesterday for a victory rally after the announcement. But while they celebrated the ban, many also warned that a battle lays ahead over natural gas developments— gas pipelines, compressor stations, storage facilities—that have begun cropping up as gas from neighboring states passes through New York and into energy markets along the Eastern Seaboard. The new projects, they argued, could come with their own set of negative environmental impacts, even if drilling itself is banned.

"This is the next big battle," said Fox, citing the Constitution Pipeline, a 125-mile natural gas transmission vein that was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) earlier this month, as a future target of protest.

A slew of FERC-approved natural compressor stations have also cropped up in New York, including one in Minisink, a township about sixty miles for New York City where residents have told me they are afraid to go outside for fear of the headaches, nosebleeds, and dizzy spells that they have started to experience since the station went online in June 2013. The FERC, together with the New York DEC, also gave their blessing this year to a plan that will allow Texas-based energy firm Crestwood Midstream to store natural gas in abandoned underground salt mines near Seneca Lake in upstate New York.

"They've fracked so much gas out of the ground now that there's a glut of it," said Sandra Steingraber, a biologist at Ithaca College and a vocal opponent of fracking. "Natural gas storage projects don't just represent environmental health problems in the long run — water contamination, air pollution, which is what fracking gives us — they also represent basic safety issues," she added, emphasizing that natural gas is also highly explosive.

Steingraber is one of the 130 activists who have gone to jail for protesting the Seneca Lake storage project, including a group of 41 who were arrested for trespassing on Crestwood property on Tuesday, the day the fracking ban was announced.

External factors appear to be working in favor of the anti-frackers. Increased oil and gas production has flooded the market with fuel, driving down prices. On Wednesday, US crude oil fell to just $55 a barrel, nearly half of where the price stood six months ago. The drop has made some operators more cautious about drilling new hydraulic fracturing wells, particularly in hard-to-reach shale like the Marcellus. In other words, the "glut of gas" that fracking has ushered forth could be its own demise.

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