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Cuomo's Careful Approach to Fracking

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As the process of reviewing the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in New York State extends into its fourth contentious year, the Cuomo administration recently announced an additional extension to study the health impacts of fracking. Environmental advocates pushed for an outside "independent" evaluation of health impacts, but according to a story by New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro:

... Joseph Martens, commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, announced that he had asked the health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, to assess his department's analysis of the health effects closely. Mr. Martens said he was responding to widespread concerns that the state had not adequately addressed potential health consequences in its environmental assessments as it moved toward a decision on whether to permit the drilling process and what rules would govern it.

The highly charged political environment around hydraulic fracturing is the direct result of the hard-charging, damn-the-torpedoes strategy of the gas companies and their allies to get that gas at any cost. The emotional response of environmentalists and many local communities is predictable and easy to understand. The scientific research on the impact of hydraulic fracturing is far from complete and many key questions remain unanswered. Unnamed fracking advocates or "sources" quoted in a recent column by the New York Post's Fred Dicker assert that:

"Health studies already conducted in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas, where hydrofracking is widely conducted, have found no evidence of significant harmful effects... "This has been studied for years in other states with only isolated cases of problems identified, and they were quickly fixed," said one source.

The piece goes on to note that President Obama and key environmental officials support fracking. It is true that fracking is included in Obama's "all of the above" energy non-policy, but while the science of hydraulic fracturing continues to proceed, the intense political environment of the moment makes it difficult for the scientific debate to remain free of political content.

Given these circumstances, the Cuomo administration's careful approach to this issue is correct and continued study is called for. However, it is essential that the health study they are commissioning be of the highest quality and clearly objective, if it is to stand up to the inevitable intense scrutiny it will receive.

While I look at hydraulic fracturing, deep sea oil drilling and mountain top removal as environmentally destructive and risky methods of extracting fossil fuels from the earth, I see no way of preventing them until we develop large amounts of easily accessible and lower cost renewable energy. Our economic well-being and political stability depend on energy. The economic and political force pushing to extract these fuels is far greater than the political and economic power of those who favor leaving it in the ground. If hydraulic fracturing is to take place, then it should be carefully regulated to reduce its impact on ecosystems and public health.

I do not believe these impacts can be eliminated, they can only be reduced. I hope that someday we will learn to achieve zero impact, but the idea that there is some environmentally pristine way to live on this crowded planet is beyond absurd. Our civilization requires energy and we will get it one way or the other. If we do not burn natural gas, we will probably burn oil and coal. The alternative is not gas versus nothing but gas versus other fuels. If we do not frack in New York, they'll just frack more in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Hydraulic fracturing cannot be successfully regulated without national rules, and in the long run that is what we will need to do. We also desperately need a national crash program to develop and commercialize renewable energy technology. Mitt Romney may think that $80 billion of federal investment in green energy is a boondoggle, but it is far from that. It may well have been one of the most important accomplishments of President Obama's first term.

In the meantime, here in New York, we should try to show the rest of the country how to carefully and safely extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale -- if it can be done. If we don't know how to do it, let's leave it in the ground until we can figure out a safe way to get to it. I recognize how naïve this must sound. It seems highly unlikely that all that money will be left on the table. I am guessing that the amount of money that could be made by these companies might inspire them to figure out a careful way to frack. If not, they can always blow up the soils to our south.

The Cuomo administration deserves credit for responding to the demands for further study of health impacts. While there is little question that the Governor wants to end the state's fracking moratorium, it is becoming clear that he will only do this when he is convinced that the New York's environment and public health will be protected. While he is under ferocious political pressure from both sides of this debate, his search for scientific data and projections of probable impacts is precisely the response I would hope for. If the Governor is simply delaying to try to avoid the issue, or to hope its shape may change, he is mistaken. The intensity of the issue is growing, and shows no sign of going away.

Those who advocate an absolute fracking ban need to articulate a realistic alternative source of energy. Those who advocate fracking need to frankly admit the risks involved and accept rules that will reduce that risk. I hate to say it, but there is no way to run the modern economy without damaging the environment. The goal of the field of sustainability management is to figure out how to run the economy without destroying our biosphere, but at the moment we do not have the technology or management capacity to maintain our standard of living without harming the planet. It may well be that there is no safe way to extract this gas using these technologies. That is a question that should be subject to careful and expert scientific study.

I doubt very much that environmental advocates want to live their lives without the use of energy. I doubt very much that people who work for or with the gas companies want to drink polluted water and eat poisoned food. We need to learn how to make the trade-off choices that must be made to maintain our lifestyles while we develop the technologies and management capacity needed for a sustainable economy. The ideology of drilling at all costs is far from helpful. The ideology of refusing to develop these resources is also counter-productive.

We need to drop the ideological nonsense and focus on the real issues. If you have a home near a fracking site you have little reason to believe any industry assurances that your home and drinking water are safe from contamination. By allowing Dick Cheney and the "drill baby drill" crowd to ignore environmental rules and keep fracking fluid contents confidential, industry has doubled down on quick and dirty gas mining. This careless disregard for the environment greatly increases the probability of human errors, failed technology, and a contaminated environment.

Just as competent regulation could have prevented the BP Gulf oil spill, effective policing of hydraulic fracturing can reduce accidents. If regulation is effective and small infractions of the rules are punished, the number of large catastrophic accidents can be reduced. This in turn can build the public's confidence in the safety of the process.

My hope is that New York manages to develop a rigorous but reasonable set of rules on the location, operation and upkeep of gas wells and the disposal of fracking waste. New York should tax a small portion of the profits of these wells and use those resources to fund a competent and effective team of inspectors. By moving slowly and carefully, New York can learn from the mistakes made by other states. Hopefully we will learn how to safely extract this gas. However, if we learn that the process cannot be made safe, we should learn how to resume the moratorium and stop the fracking.

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