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New York will move to prohibit fracking

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration will move to prevent fracking in the state, citing unresolved health issues and dubious economic benefits of the widely used gas-drilling technique.

Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said Wednesday that he was recommending a ban, and Cuomo said he would defer to Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker in making the decision.

The move is likely to buoy opponents of fracking nationally who have previously only managed to win local bans. Industry representatives expressed disappointment but also have downplayed New York’s potential as a major source of natural gas.

Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized the findings of environmental and health reviews that concluded that shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing carried unacceptable risks that haven’t been sufficiently studied.

Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, and after that he’ll issue an order prohibiting fracking.

The gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation underlying southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by fracking, or high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure.

The drilling technique has generated tens of billions of dollars and reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it’s also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation, heavy truck traffic and health impacts.

New York has had a ban on shale gas development since the environmental review began in 2008.

Zucker said he had identified “significant public health risks” and “red flag” health issues that require long-term studies before fracking can be called safe. He likened fracking to secondhand smoke, which wasn’t fully understood as a health risk until many years of scientific study had been done.

Martens noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight and the large areas that would be off-limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections, and local prohibitions. He said those factors combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than had been anticipated.

David Spigelmyer, president of the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, said last week that drilling wouldn’t be likely to take off anytime soon in New York even if restrictions were lifted because of the uncertainty around regulations and legal challenges and the huge amount of promising drilling locations that remain in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania.

The location of the rock is enticing to producers because of its proximity to major demand centers of New York City and New England, which is paying relatively more for natural gas due to delivery constraints. But the uncertainty remains too high to commit to the region.

Spigelmyer said there is a saying circulating among companies and so-called land-men who secure drilling rights in the region: “The quickest way to lose your job is to get acreage in New York.”

Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, and after that he’ll issue an order prohibiting fracking.

Cuomo said the debate over fracking was the “most emotional” he has had to deal with as governor, topping even such hot-button issues as same-sex marriage and gun control. He said the issue led to some heated encounters with people on both sides of the debate. Within 30 seconds of talking about fracking with opponents, tempers typically flared, Cuomo said.

“They’re not listening and they’re not hearing and they’re yelling,” he said. “You speak to the pro-frackers, same thing.”

Zucker said the decision came down to one question: Would he want to live in a community that allows fracking?

“My answer is, no,” he said.

He added, “We can’t afford to make a mistake. The potential dangers are too great.”

Cuomo referred to Wednesday’s presentation by his agency chiefs as “very factual,” but said he’s anticipating lawsuits being filed “every which way from Sunday.”

Karen Moreau, executive director of New York’s branch of the American Petroleum Institute, said the Cuomo administration was denying thousands of landowners the right to develop their mineral resources.

“The secretary of energy, the U.S. EPA administrator and President Obama recognize the benefits of fracking, and yet the Cuomo administration simply did not want to anger their activist base,” Moreau said.