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Olesia Plokhii

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'Fracking' Becomes Major Issue In New York's 24th District

Posted: 10/15/10 04:16 PM ET

In New York's 24th Congressional District, instead of names of wannabe congressmen, legislators, and governors, lawns are littered with a different sign: "No Drill No Spill."

The catchy signs, which point to anger over the Gulf Oil Spill and a desire for tighter regulations for drilling in the district, are now being paired with "No Frack" signs that represent recent criticism towards a new way of drilling for natural gas in the state.

Candidates in New York's 24th Congressional District, Republican Richard Hanna and Democratic incumbent Mike Arcuri, are just as cautious as their constituents to embrace high-volume hydraulic fracturing of horizontal wells, a new twist -- because of the high water concentrations -- on an old drilling method commonly referred to as hydrofracking.

The procedure, which would use millions of gallons of water mixed with numerous chemicals to penetrate rock formations in two natural gas hotbeds in New York state that include a portion of the Marcellus Shale --which contains 50 trillion cubic feet of frackable, untapped gas -- has become a hot-button political issue.

Potential job creation and environmental and health concerns are all playing a part in the debate over hydrofracking.

After a close 2008 match-up for the same seat that saw Arcuri win against Hanna 52-48, hydrofracking -- and it's ability to create jobs -- is emerging as a defining issue in the toss-up race.

Both candidates have expressed support for safe gas extraction and also serious concern about the safety of the new form of drilling. Arcuri's camp has repeatedly questioned the motives behind Hanna's concern with drilling.

"Mr. Hanna talks a lot about natural gas drilling now, but two years ago he was saying that we had to fast track the development of our natural resources," Arcuri last week wrote the HuffPo in an email. "My opponent also held stock in the same drilling companies seeking to run roughshod over existing environmental regulations and the purity of our water supply."

"My position on natural gas drilling has been consistent from day one."

Hanna's campaign didn't answer calls or emails on hydrofracking. The businessman has come under scrutiny for his past investments in energy companies and his opponent has questioned Hanna's ability to objectively evaluate natural gas extraction. The Observer-Dispatch reported the following:

According to Hanna's 2008 House financial disclosure form, which lists values in ranges, Hanna had from $1.6 million to $3.4 million of investments in oil companies at that time.

That includes somewhere from $250,000 to $500,000 of investments in Anadarko Petroleum Corp., a Texas-based oil company with a 25 percent stake in the Deepwater Horizon project that resulted in the BP oil spill.

Hanna's campaign has publicly said the candidate is no longer invested in Anadarko Petroleum Corp. His 2010 financial disclosure form is not yet available.

The Observer-Dispatch also reported that Hanna had investments valued at $500,000 to $1 million in Chesapeake Energy. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Press Secretary Yancey Roy said currently the company has 47 out of 58 drilling permit applications awaiting approval for high volume horizontal fracking in NY's Marcellus Shale. Hanna no longer holds stock in Chesapeake.

When questioned recently about his stock holdings, The Daily Star reported Hanna said his stock holdings were less than 6 percent of his investments, and if elected to Congress, he would take action to avoid a conflict of interest.

The hydrofracking debate in NY has reached fever pitch since the start of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessment study, EPA public hearings that wrapped up last month, and the release of an award winning Sundance Film Festival documentary on fracking called "Gasland." See the trailer for the film below:

The new EPA study to research fracking risks comes after the agency's 2004 study labeled the practice as safe and paved the way for passage of a 2005 legislation that exempted hydrofracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The exemption, Roy said, was partly meant as a reminder that hydrofracking has always fallen outside of the regulatory scope of the Underground Injection Control program, the only provision within the SDWA for injections.

In 2009, Arcuri co-sponsored a house bill, the FRAC Act, which would repeal the exemption and require disclosure by companies of all chemicals used in the process. The bill is still in committee.

The new study, due out in 2012, is meant to provide "science to guide policy," EPA Deputy Press Secretary Betsaida Alcantara said, and can only influence, not make law.

The DEC, New York's regulatory agency that issues oil and gas permits, has since 2008 had a de facto moratorium on permits for the new type of drilling. The moratorium will end, Roy said, when a document outlining more stringent permit requirements is finalized.

But with a legally inept EPA study only being concluded in 2012 and the DEC potentially lifting their moratorium tomorrow, environmental activists that included folk singer Peter Seeger and actor Mark Ruffalo protested for a statewide ban on new permits this summer.

The New York State Senate in August passed a moratorium until May 15, 2011.

Drilling in the Shale is a divisive issue for many in the district, Arcuri told HuffPost, because new permits would bring to the economically depressed area a financial stimulus and jobs, the most important subject for voters in the region and a campaign pillar of both candidates.

Jim Smith from the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a trade group that aims to advance oil and gas industries in the state, cited a July study that pinned economic benefits of additional drilling at 280,000 jobs and $6 billion over the next decade.

"Moratorium bills are an attempt by extreme environmental groups to block natural gas exploration in New York," Smith said. "Hydrofracking has become the four letter word in the industry, where anything bad happening is attributed to hydrofracking."

The top Pennsylvania environmental regulator has threatened to sue a drilling company if they refused to extend a public water line to residents whose wells were contaminated with methane gas.

Hydrofracking, which Smith said has become "political," has both candidates vying to represent the natural gas-laden district treading carefully, sitting on a fence between job creation and water safety.