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Fight Over Fracking in New York State Among Top Issues for 2012

I’m saving my “What to Look for in 2012” listicle for tomorrow, but one of the issues that may not make the list, but which is terribly important, is the battle in the states over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 2011 was the year when this issue finally bubbled up to the surface (pardon the pun) and into the consciousness of the public. The critically acclaimed Gasland came out in 2010, but anti-facking forces benefited this year from some scientific revelations. Independent studies for the first time identified fracking as a cause of methane contamination and water pollution, and late in the year, the EPA agreed in a case in Wyoming.

In 2012 this fight to set the terms of the debate could lead to real action. The EPA has already issues some emissions standards for natural gas operators, and they plan to announce wastewater standards (crucial, since fracking uses a tremendous amount of water). Congress could deal with the “Halliburton loophole,” a provision in the 2005 energy bill that allows natural gas companies to hide disclosure of the chemicals they use in fracking, via an exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the major rulemaking will take place in the states. Some western states have implemented disclosure laws on fracking fluids. But the biggest challenge will take place in New York state, home to the coveted Marcellus Shale region. Jillian Rayfield reports.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had hoped that in the coming year the state would lift a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale in western New York. The shale, which also extends into parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, is considered a prime source for extracting natural gas through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This involves horizontally drilling into the shale rock and flooding it with chemicals to crack it open, allowing the gas to escape.

Over the past few years, there’s been a dramatic increase in hydrofracking activity in the shale. Pennsylvania, for instance, has issued over 8000 permits and started over 4000 wells since 2008. Drilling companies and other supporters of lifting the ban point to Pennsylvania’s recent economic windfall and a NYSDEC study that estimates fracking would directly create 25,000 jobs in New York.

Currently, New York has a ban on fracking permits in the shale, pending the release of new regulations by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. But though the NYSDEC had planned to release those regulations sometime in the new year, fears about the potential environmental impact of hydrofracking could delay a decision until the summer — or even until 2013.

A major concern is that the process could potentially contaminate the state’s water supply since the shale is so close to the main water source for much of the state — including New York City. In some fracking site-adjacent towns, homeowners have reported that their tap water has turned brown or become highly flammable.

One of the reasons Pennsylvania has seen an explosion of fracking in the Marcellus Shale region, apart from Governor Tom Corbett being in the hip pocket of the oil and gas industry, is the economic potential. That extends to the individuals whose land sits on top of the shale, many of whom get large payouts from natural gas operators for the right to drill.

A decision on opening up the Delaware River Basin to fracking, an area which includes upstate New York and which provides drinking water to 15.8 million Americans, has been postponed. But New York lifting the moratorium would lead to another fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale region. The public comment period for the NYSDEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) ends January 11. Because of the number of public comments – over 15,000 – review and rulemaking could get delayed even into 2013. There’s also a proposal in the New York state legislature to extend the moratorium for an additional year. So there are chances for success for environmentalists.

Natural gas is often described as a “bridge fuel” while the energy infrastructure transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. But if the cost of extracting natural gas means polluted drinking water across the country, that’s a bridge to nowhere.

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David Dayen

David Dayen