The Political Minefield of Hydraulic Fracturing in New York State

While in the long run we need to develop a fossil fuel free economy, in the short run, we are forced to choose between the energy sources now available. Natural gas is not as dirty as coal or oil. We should use it as a transition to a renewable energy economy.
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The issue of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has become a major dilemma for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as he tries to decide if the state should lift the ban on fracking first put into place by Governor David Patterson. The issue has resulted in protests, lobbying and a divided public. The lack of consensus is made clear in a recent poll: from January 27-31, 2013, the Sienna College Research Institute conducted a detailed poll of the attitudes of New York State residents toward hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Sienna pollster Steven Greenberg reported that New Yorkers as well as residents of the state's gas-rich southern tier are nearly evenly split among fracking opponents and supporters. Forty percent of New Yorkers favor lifting the moratorium, and an equal number oppose it, with 16 percent saying that they do not have enough information to make a judgment. Greenberg's polling indicates that the views of fracking opponents are more intensely held than those of fracking's supporters. If fracking is permitted, 88% of its opponents will be upset and 54% of its opponents will be very upset. By contrast, a continued ban would upset 59 percent of fracking supporters with only 20% reporting that they would be very upset.

The polling data indicates that if fracking is carefully regulated, a small number of fracking opponents might be willing to give it a try. However, the intensity of the views of fracking's opponents virtually ensures that this issue will continue to present difficult choices to the governor. Most of the public understands the potential economic benefit of permitting gas drilling, but also understands the environmental dangers presented by the practice. The intensity of the issue and its profound symbolism virtually ensures the absence of rational discourse. From a purely political perspective, it would be expedient to allow opponents to have their way and continue the state's moratorium on fracking.

I admit that some of the gas drilling practices I see in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia terrify me. They can be sloppy, poorly managed and an invitation to environmental catastrophe. The federal government's abdication of its regulatory responsibilities in this area is an inexcusable legacy of the Bush-Cheney years. Nevertheless, the practice of hydraulic fracturing will continue with or without New York, and a continued moratorium eliminates the possibility that New York might be able to figure out a way to carefully police and extract natural gas without damaging the environment -- or at least without damaging the environment as much as we are seeing in other states.

While in the long run, I strongly believe we need to develop a fossil fuel free economy, in the short run, we are forced to choose between the energy sources now available. Natural gas pollutes the air and emits greenhouse gasses, but it is not as dirty a fuel as either coal or oil. Since I do not see any fracking opponents turning off their lights or sitting in the cold or dark, I think that it is irresponsible to dismiss a source of energy without carefully weighing its costs and benefits. More importantly, I think we have an opportunity here to carefully study the technology of hydraulic fracturing in order to develop a set of best practices designed to reduce fracking's impact on ecosystems and human health.

Since Governor Cuomo would probably like to avoid alienating half of the public, and because some opponents appear open to permitting fracking if it is carefully regulated, I suggest that the state fund a demonstration project in New York. The project would carefully study a typical operating, gas-producing facility. The study would examine the facility's gas production practices and measure its environmental impact. The goal of the project would be to develop a set of rules to govern fracking practices and waste management. The demonstration project should be advised by both scientists and stakeholders, and its analysis and data should be open and available for independent critique. Columbia's University's Earth Institute could put together a team of scientists, engineers, sustainability management analysts and environmental lawyers from throughout New York and produce a world-class study. If the state would rather use other scientists, similar teams could be drawn from SUNY, CUNY, Cornell, as well as other New York universities.

The alternative to carefully regulated hydraulic fracturing is the "wild west" version we see in Ohio and Pennsylvania. While New York could and should provide a model of best practices, in the long run, the federal government must regulate fracking. Of course, if scientific study indicates that there is no safe way to extract this gas from the ground, the practice should be banned. A more likely outcome is that a carefully managed fracking process can be designed, but will cost more than the current version. Given the need for energy and the cost of other energy sources, fracking can probably be profitable, even if it is rigorously regulated.

While advocates of hydraulic fracturing minimize the risk of extracting natural gas this way, and opponents of this practice do not want it to proceed under any circumstances, we need to at least explore the possibility of a middle ground. Our modern economy and the conveniences we all enjoy cannot be run without risk. Cars crash, technologies fail, people make mistakes. The risks posed by fracking cannot be analyzed as an abstraction, but must be compared to the other methods available to obtain energy. There is no pristine way to fuel a modern economy. It is delusional to think we can obtain these benefits without cost. However, it is even more delusional to think that we should develop energy without regard to its impact on human and environmental health. We should do everything we can do to understand, minimize and manage these negative impacts. Our goal should be to use these fuels as transition fuels to a renewable energy economy.

In the meantime, Governor Cuomo is under extreme pressure to either ban fracking or lift the moratorium. A demonstration project would be seen by some as a tactic to delay a decision and yet another study designed to kick the can down the road; however, a carefully designed, time limited demonstration project could help us learn more about the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing and the methods that could be used to contain and manage those risks. The best way for the Governor to navigate fracking's political minefield is to continue to utilize high quality science to inform his decision-making. Support for a well regulated fracking process could grow if the public believes that fracking rules were built on a carefully constructed analysis of best practices. A visible, rigorous and peer reviewed demonstration project could be a key part of that analysis.

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