I recently moved to a small college town in upstate New York and was tickled to find t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Frack with My Water” at a local store. The shirts are a cute way of addressing an issue that is anything but. High-volume hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “hydrofracking” or simply “fracking” – is the process of pumping large amounts of water, sand, and almost 600 chemicals into the ground at very high pressures in order to release natural gas. The controversial process of hydrofracking has become extremely contentious in the mid-Atlantic of late, from Pennsylvania, where fracking is already occurring, to New York, where the governor is publicly considering letting the natural gas companies in to frack private lands. A look at the two sides of the debate provides a clearer picture as to what is going on.
Parts of New York and Pennsylvania sit atop the Marcellus shale, a large sedimentary rock formation that lies under much of the Appalachian Basin and is a large reserve of untapped natural gas. In late June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would seek to remove a ban that had been put in place to prevent hydrofracturing. The plan would allow the process on private lands, excluding those that make up the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as well as the watersheds of some other regions. The governor’s administration insists that adequate precautions would be used to minimize public health risk.
Proponents of hydrofracking tout it as a greener alternative to coal and petroleum, and they further contend that it would be a lucrative way to lessen our dependence on foreign energy sources while boosting the state’s economy. According to The New York Times, some state environmental groups have said that they would not be opposed to the process if proper legal and procedural regulations were improved. The New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) released its recommendations for how the state of New York can proceed with hydraulic fracturing while taking the necessary measures to protect the environment. These recommendations include:
High-volume fracturing would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including a buffer zone; drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries; surface drilling would be prohibited on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas; high-volume fracturing will be permitted on privately held lands under rigorous and effective controls; and DEC will issue regulations to codify these recommendations into state law. (“New Recommendations”)
The full text of the DEC’s recommendations can be found here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/75370.html
Critics of hydraulic fracturing insist that natural gas is also an unsustainable fuel source and that hydrofracking is dangerous to the public health. The New York Times reports that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has largely been a friend to environmental organizations in the state, but that his announcement he would consider lifting the ban on hyrdrofracking has concerned many. A number of environmental organizations have been outspoken about the perceived risks of hydraulic fracturing. According to Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the primary concerns are:
Radioactivity that is a physical characteristic of Marcellus shale; the hazardous cocktail of hydro-fracking chemicals injected into the ground; air pollution from diesel engines, compressor stations, and flaring; brine that is 5x saltier than seawater that can damage freshwater streams and lakes, as well as corrode infrastructure, and hazardous liquid and solid waste that is stored on-site, transported on public roads, and disposed of at municipal landfills or sewage treatment plants. (“Natural Gas Hydro-fracking”)
Some of these concerns have been validated by accidents in Pennsylvania and other states where hydraulic fracturing is practiced. In Bradford County, PA, for example, a spill at a Chesapeake Energy Corporation drilling site leaked thousands of gallons of chemical hydrofracking liquid into the environment. Other incidents have been reported and are the subject of an independent documentary called “Gasland,” which has become a talking point of many of those who oppose hydrofracking.
The discussion of whether or not hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in New York brings to mind what environmentalists have termed the “precautionary principle.” This idea begs the question of who is responsible for carrying the burden of proof with regard to environmental hazard. In other words, is it up to the consumer, in this case the residents of the areas slated for hydrofracking, to prove that they are being harmed by environmental toxins? Or should the burden fall on the industry, in this case the natural gas companies, to prove that the practice is not harmful before being allowed to proceed? Clearly, it is more difficult or nearly impossible to “prove” a falsehood, so proving ahead of time that something is not harmful is exceedingly difficult to do. However, when a company is using known carcinogens and other seriously harmful chemicals in close proximity to homes and sources of drinking water, the bar should be set higher. I want something close to “proof” that these chemicals will not harm my family, and if proof cannot be rendered, perhaps the project should not be green-lighted to proceed.
It will be interesting to follow the development of hydrofracking in New York state, and the issue is likely to be more hotly debated before it is settled. Even for those not residing in New York, the topic may engender concern for broader issues, and may even create concern among some. This is likely the very tip of the energy dispute iceberg, so get ready for more to come.
GrÖndahl, Mika. “Chemicals and Toxic Materials in Hydrofracking – Interactive Graphic – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 08 Aug. 2011. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/01/us/chemicals-and-toxic-materials-in-hydrofracking.html?scp=1>.
Hakim, Danny, and Nicholas Confessore. “Cuomo Will Seek to Lift Ban on Hydraulic Fracturing.” New York Times. 30 June 2011. Web. 8 Aug. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/nyregion/cuomo-will-seek-to-lift-drilling-ban.html?pagewanted=all>.
“Marcellus Formation.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcellus_Formation>.
“Natural Gas Hydro-Fracking in Shale – Citizens Campaign for the Environment.”Citizens Campaign for the Environment – New York and Connecticut Environmental Protection Preservation and Advocacy. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. <http://www.citizenscampaign.org/campaigns/hydro-fracking.asp>.
“New Recommendations Issued in Hydraulic Fracturing Review – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 30 June 2011. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. <http://www.dec.ny.gov/press/75403.html>.
Pony, One Trick. Gasland: A Film by Josh Fox. Web. 08 Aug. 2011. <http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/>.
Radigan, Mike. “Http://www.newsradiowebo.com/?p=9837.” News Radio WEBO. 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 8 Aug. 2011.