NEW YORK - Environmentalists and state residents concerned about the safety of their towns and drinking water won a first victory over "fracking" as outgoing Gov. David Paterson signed a Dec. 11 executive order banning the practice until July.
"Fracking" is hydraulic fracturing of rock to extract natural gas. Big energy companies engage in fracking, or hydrofracking, by drilling far down into the Earth's surface to an area called the Marcellus Shale - located primarily in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - where large quantities of methane gas have been found. They then turn the drill bits sideways, and extend the wells horizontally for miles.
Opponents say it is an extremely dangerous process. They pushed for an outright ban, siting the state Department of Environmental Conservation's failure to adequately study the safety of the practice. Paterson agreed. The ban is intended to give the DEC ample time to conduct a comprehensive review of the process and its associated dangers.
Some expressed disappointment with the governor. In November, the State Assembly passed a bill, similar to one passed in the State Senate, disallowing all types of hydraulic fracturing through May 15. Paterson, however, vetoed the bill, saying that any blanket ban for any amount of time would harm the state's economy. Instead, he singled out horizontal fracking, but extended the deadline to July 1. The other form is considered less dangerous by the governor, and has not been banned.
Referring to the Assembly bill, passed Nov. 29, Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, and James Gennaro, the council's Environmental Committee chair, said in a statement that allowing time for a scientific review by the DEC was a "monumental step for the environment."
"As accounts of contaminated water, soil and air due to hydraulic fracturing come in from across the country," Quinn and Gennaro said, "New York is in a unique position to show much-needed leadership on this issue."
As simple as the fracking process sounds, say its critics, it is actually fraught with dangers. As the drill bits go for miles and miles, owners of houses are pushed into signing low-priced leases for land beneath their homes with the energy companies, bringing home values down precipitously. Further, fracking takes place in rural areas, where there are small roads. Many large trucks are necessary for each well, meaning a huge increase in traffic. All of this can disrupt life in small towns.
The drilling itself, which entails injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with poisonous chemicals into the ground, can go dangerously wrong. Explosive charges are used to fracture the underground rock - thus the term "fracking" - in order to release the methane. However, if mistakes are made, water sources can become so toxic that they are considered "dead." In rural Pennsylvania, dozens of miles of stream are now dead due to fracking mishaps. Elsewhere, residents have reported that their tap water has, in some cases, caught on fire due to methane released into their water.
Scott Stringer, Manhattan's borough president, commissioned a report that found that seven states nationwide have been the sites of either extreme incidents of water contamination or explosions near fracking sites.
Even without mishaps there are problems, say environmentalists. The drilling goes so far down that it bores straight through aquifers - naturally occurring filters in the earth that clean water. The chemicals and lubricants used in the fracking process might end up poisoning drinking water.
"From our perspective," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said earlier this year, "drilling in areas that supply more than 1 billion gallons of drinking water a day for more than 9 million New Yorkers is simply a chance we cannot take."
The city commissioned a study in 2009 which found that, if hydraulic fracturing were to continue, it would likely be necessary to build a $10 billion filtration plant - at taxpayers' expense.
The big energy companies defend the practice, saying it is harmless or concerns are vastly overstated.
A Nov. 13 statement from America's Natural Gas, which speaks for the industry, claims, "The reality is that natural gas is produced safely every day in communities across this country and it offers a clean energy future, fueled by abundant and domestically produced energy."
Environmentalists, however, argue that the group is intentionally misleading the public. The industry statement, which is a response to the popular TV drama "CSI," states that fracking is not unregulated. It later on says that natural gas is good for the U.S. economy and is mined every day - though the connection is unclear, as most natural gas produced in America is not done through fracking.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study, but there have been very few scientific assessments of the process. This, say New Yorkers, underscores the importance of the state's ban and DEC investigation.
"The eyes of the country are focused on New York and whether we will be the first state to use truly objective and comprehensive scientific analysis to inform policymaking regarding hydraulic fracturing," wrote Quinn and Gennaro. "The moratorium will allow time for such analysis to be commenced."