Let's Take a Break: NY Senate Passes Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracturing

by |August 6, 2010

A protest in Syracuse, New York. Source: syracuse.com

Anyone concerned with NYC’s water supply (and that’s a natural constituency of at least 8 million people)  woke up to some good news on Wednesday:  the New York senate passed a bill placing a moratorium on “fracking,” the controversial  drilling process which involves injecting a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into wells in order to extract natural gas.  While fracking is exceedingly prevalent in the United States, the controversy surrounding the technique has exploded recently as energy companies have made an aggressive push to begin fracking in the Marcellus Shale (a huge underground rock formation) in upstate New York, potentially putting at risk the water supply of the nation’s largest population center.

Fracking is an interesting example of a topic we talk about frequently at the Columbia Water Center: the water-energy nexus.  In this case, the link relates water quality to energy supply.  While fracking in the Marcellus Shale could provide significant supplies of relatively clean energy (natural gas), it also presents a huge threat to groundwater quality.  My colleague, Lakis Polycarpou, recently wrote a great piece about this important topic.

The moratorium is great news in that it buys time for New York state to study the issue more closely.  It also places the decision about fracking in the hands of the New York’s next governor, rather than asking the outgoing Patterson administration to make this decision.  While energy lobbyists have made the usual claims that the moratorium will result in economic calamity for New York, the bill simply allows the state to take a break and address all legitimate concerns.  As Sen. Liz Krueger points out, the potential negative consequences if fracking in the area goes awry are virtually boundless.  Given such high stakes, why not take an extra 6-12 months to address the issue properly?   The state’s initial environmental review was panned by experts for its lack of scientific rigor.  It’s clear that more time is needed to delve into this issue, and the Senate did the right thing in ensuring that we take that time.

While the record in nearby Pennsylvania is not encouraging, it may be possible to safely use fracking techniques in New York in a way that protects water quality.  If so, and if the supplies in the shale are as great as the energy companies project, a short moratorium isn’t going to cause any significant negative impact to the state’s economy.  On the other hand, the consequences of allowing fracking to go ahead without fully understanding the risks are virtually boundless.  In this context, the moratorium seems obvious, and it’s hard to understand how objections can be made in good faith.

Kudos to the New York Senate – their willingness to tackle this controversial issue is impressive, and the moratorium allows us all to catch a breath of fresh air (or water, in this case).

Upstate New York farmland. Source: Civil Eats

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In New York City, 2010 is All About the Water – Water Matters - State of the PlanetStruggle to Keep Fish, People & Power Companies Happy – Water Matters - State of the PlanetKaiCitizenSafe Water or Abundant Energy? Take Your Pick – Water Matters - State of the Planet Recent comment authors
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Citizen
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Citizen

I’m not sure what the intended impact of the ban is. The New York City and Syracuse (Skaneateles) watershed areas are already outside of the SGEIS process. No permitting will happen in those areas without an individual environmental impact study on a per well basis. The cost of defending those studies will make the NYC & Syracuse watersheds off limits for decades. The bill sponsors claim to want to study high volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. But no permits will be issued before late spring anyways due to the restrictions associated with the SGEIS process. Given that high volume… Read more »

tristan
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tristan

@Citizen i’m not sure why the argument that this bill shafts farmers means that it’s a bad bill. i am passionately on the side of the farmer, but i question your reasoning. namely — why is the farmer being compelled to lease his land to drilling, anyway? perhaps this is a fault of the subsidy system, which already treats farmers unfairly. this seems to me to be the issue at stake for farmers, not the ban on drilling. should farmers needs, pressured by a failed subsidy system, necessitate ecologically-questionable practices, particularly when those practices could contaminate the farmer’s air or… Read more »

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[…] and New York State’s absence at a recent meeting on the topic, and Dan Stellar talked about the recent moratorium on drilling). Protesters fight hydrofracking. Source: WRVO, Oswego, […]

Citizen
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Citizen

Tristan – My point was to ask – “what is the point of the moratorium?” – The DEC already has a defacto moratorium on permitting any wells that would utilize high volume hydraulic fracturing. This defacto ban will last until the SGEIS process is complete (late spring 2011 at the earliest), and the DEC has staffing available for permitting / enforcement. – The NYC & Syracuse watersheds are already permanently off limits. So, what was the point of the moratorium? -To trap farmers in crappy mineral leases? -To benefit Chesapeake and the other big gas companies? -To shut down conventional… Read more »

Kai
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Kai

@ Citizen – You’re not entirely correct on one of your your facts. – The NYC & Syracuse watersheds are already permanently off limits. —That is not the case. Drilling permits in the NYC and Skaneateles watersheds CAN be issued, but on a case-by-case basis. Drilling outfits like Chesapeake currently find the permitting process too onerous, time-consuming, and thus costly, so they choose not to pursue permits in these areas. If future conditions around the U.S. natural gas play change, drilling is possible in those watersheds. The reasons behind the moratorium are these: > An intentional slow-down in NYS of… Read more »

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[…] similar to that surrounding hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast, in that we see water quality concerns impacting energy supply policy and vice versa. There is also still a need for further studies on environmental impacts. However there is at least […]

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[…] may we have a formal prohibition of hydraulic fracturing, […]