As a moratorium on hydrofracking nears its end, the debate over the controversial method of natural gas drilling continues to heat up across the state.
Last week, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he has given the federal government one month to commit to "conducting a full environmental review of proposed regulations that would allow natural gas drilling–including the potentially harmful 'fracking' technique–in the Delaware River Basin."
Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a process in which millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are blasted into shale beneath the earth's surface in order to release trapped natural gas. While vertical fracking already takes place in the state's Southern Tier, horizontal hydrofracking is the topic of the current debate because the process poses greater threats to the environment - particularly drinking water.
“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,” said Schneiderman.
The proposed regulations of natural gas extraction with which Schneiderman has taken issue are included in the Delaware River Basin Commission's (DRBC) Draft Natural Gas Development Regulations that were released in Dec. 2010. The commission is comprised of four states–New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania–as well as federal governmental agencies.
In Schneiderman's request, he said he cited the National Environmental Policy Act's mandates for federal agencies–in this case, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service–to conduct full reviews of "actions that may cause significant environmental impacts." He said that these agencies did not conduct full reviews before the DRBC proposed allowing 15,000 - 18,000 gas wells to be drilled in the river basin.
The area being eyed by the gas industry is called the Marcellus Shale, a massive geological formation that stretches from New York's Southern Tier to West Virginia. This area includes the Hudson Valley counties of Orange, Sullivan, Greene and Ulster, as well as the Southern Tier counties of Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Schoharie. More than half of New York City's water shed is in this area.
Opponents of hydrofracking say that the process has the potential to contaminate drinking water supplies, damages air quality, leaves behind chemical-contaminated runoff and jeopardizes the health of people living in areas where fracking occurs.
Though natural gas has long been considered a cleaner source of energy than coal, a study from Cornell University says hydraulic fracturing in shale releases methane gas that is actually more harmful than carbon dioxide. The study was published in the May 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.
“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and oil,” said Ecology Professor Robert Howarth Howarth, a co-author of the study.
“We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”
A blowout at a gas well in Leroy Township, PA last week caused large amounts of water and gas to leak, causing contamination of nearby tributaries that run into the Susquehanna River, according to the area's local newspaper, The Times Leader. The newspaper reported that the company Chesapeake Energy, who was running the fracking operation, shut down all of its operations in Pennsylvania on Apr. 21. Leroy Township is about 25 miles from the New York border.
The documentary "" highlights some of the social and enviromental consequences of fracking in areas of the country, such as Wyoming and Colorado, where companies have been using the gas extraction method for years. Interviewees cited ill health after fracking was introduced to their towns, and another infamous scene shows a man in Colorado lighting his drinking water on fire.
The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGA-NY), though, says that fracking is safe and creates jobs in areas that are economically-depressed.
"No one is in favor of pollution, and no one is in favor of inadequate regulation,” said Brad Gill, executive director of IOGA-NY. “Anyone who looks at the industry’s record of environmental safety in New York can draw only one conclusion: that our adherence to a strict regulatory structure is stellar, and it has benefited New York’s natural resources."
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is currently reviewing comments on its Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, which was released in 2009. The document discusses the possible impacts of fracking in New York, but has been criticized by environmental groups as being influenced by lobbyist groups like IOGA-NY.
In Dec. 2010, then-governor David Paterson vetoed a measure that had passed both the state Assembly and Senate, which would have put . Paterson said he because it would have put moratoriums on both horizontal and vertical fracking and destroyed jobs for people currently working in vertical fracking in the Southern Tier.
Paterson did, however, issue an executive order that would ban horizontal fracking in the state until July 1, 2011, when the DEC is set to release the findings of a study on the risks of fracking to water and air supplies.
Environmental groups such as Riverkeeper are calling for the complete ban of fracking in New York. Kate Hudson, the organization's Watershed Program director, said: "The oil and gas industry is eager to drill and now our leaders have a choice to make. We're calling on Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to put the long-term health of our communities and our water, air, and land ahead of short-term gas profits."