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Fracking Upstate, Clean Water for New York City

Former Ambassador C. Boyden Gray with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in Aspen last year.

This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration began to reveal its hand on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale using the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The process involves drilling deep holes, which then turn underground and run horizontally. Millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand is pumped into each well, the pressure from which causes the shale to fracture, releasing natural gas trapped between the layers of rock. Environmentalists and people who live near fracking operations say that practice has done devastating harm to water quality, destroying wells and streams and creating wastewater that few facilities are equipped to handle.

Governor David Paterson imposed a moratorium on the issuance of permits for deep-well, horizontal fracking last year, pending a report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That moratorium has just expired, and Cuomo’s new DEC Commissioner, Joseph Martens, began releasing his agency’s conclusions and recommendations this past week.

Here’s the plan, in a nutshell: Fracking would be banned in New York City’s watershed, as well as in a watershed that provides Syracuse water. It would be banned within 500 feet of primary aquifers supplying other cities and towns. It would be banned on state-owned lands, including parks and wildlife preserves. The controls, Martens promised in statement released Friday, would be rigorous, demanding more stringent requirements than any other state has proposed regarding well construction, site layout, and wastewater disposal. The chemicals used in frack fluid would have to be identified, except those that the industry labels “proprietary.”

A panel with representatives from government, industry, and environmental groups would make recommendations on how best to proceed with permitting and regulating fracking in the Marcellus Shale. Those named to the panel so far are former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine; Kathleen McGinty, former chair of Bill Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality; Eric A. Goldstein and Kate Sinding, senior attorneys for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Robert Hallman, chair of the New York League of Conservation Voters; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance; Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York; Mark Brownstein, chief counsel to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Energy Program; Heather Briccetti, acting president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State, Inc.; Robert B. Catell, chairman of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center at SUNY Stony Brook; Mark K. Boling, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary to Southwestern Energy; State Senator Tom Libous; and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo.

“This report strikes the right balance between protecting our environment, watersheds, and drinking water and promoting economic development,” Martens said.

Well, maybe. That depends on how deep runs your faith in the economic development promises with which the natural gas industry promotes fracking the Marcellus Shale. Fracking advocates recently claimed the industry created 40,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania. A more dispassionate assessment suggests the real number was fewer than 10,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course, but the stubbornness with which the larger number continues to be repeated belies one’s faith in industry evaluation of fracking’s positive impacts.

More worrisome still are the revelations reported by Ian Urbina of the New York Times in a June 25 article titled “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush.” Urbina obtained hundreds of emails from industry insiders—lawyers, geologists, market analysts, executives—suggesting that companies have intentionally overstated the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves. “Reminds you of the dot-coms,” an analyst for PNC Wealth Management wrote. Another called it “a Ponzi scheme,” while another said that natural gas companies “are having an Enron moment. They want to bend light to hide the truth.”

If gas wells are less productive than the industry is projecting, the economics of fracking—already more expensive than traditional gas retrieval—might turn upside down. At best, companies might be forced to “drill more wells or hydrofrack them more often,” Urbina reported, in order to try to keep the promises made to landowners and investors.

Not even the presence on the DEC’s advisory panel of an environmental stalwart like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will satisfy some activists. Some small, local anti-fracking coalitions fear that national environmental advocacy groups—the “Big Greens” like the Waterkeeper Alliance and the NRDC—have made peace with the gas industry and fracking in the interest of promoting the increased use of natural gas in the place of coal in power plants. In Aspen, Colorado last year, a meeting called the Critical Path Energy Summit brought environmentalists, including Kennedy, together with government and gas industry representatives to discuss ways to promote natural gas as a bridge to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. One of the key conclusions: Advocacy for increased development of natural gas resources—e.g., exploitation of the Marcellus Shale—would need to come from environmental groups rather than from industry and government.

There’s no question that the United States ought to take a holistic look at its energy policy, and that environmentalists need to be lead the conversation. However, trying to find a path to renewables in partnership with oil and gas companies can only lead to deep contradictions such as this one: If fracking is an unacceptable risk to New York City’s water supply, what makes the risk acceptable elsewhere in the state?

geoff kelly

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