Issue: Hydrofracking


When New York prolonged its review of hydrofracking’s health effects in November, the state kept the debate on the controversial form of natural-gas drilling on simmer.

But the review ensures if New York does eventually approve hydrofracking, said Emily DeSantis, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Conservation,  “It will do so with the strictest standards in the nation.”

Hydraulic fracturing — or hydrofracking — is a controversial method of extracting natural gas. It uses a pressurized mix of water and chemicals to create fractures in impermeable rock, like shale, to release methane gas.

A new health review comes under orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo along with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to evaluate the possible effects of hydrofracking on public health. The state has hired three experts to work with the New York State Department of Health to evaluate a detailed document outlining the regulations that would be put in place if New York were to allow hydrofracking. The document, known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, was made public on the DEC’s website on Nov. 28.

New York has had a moratorium on hydrofracking since 2010. The state has not set a deadline for the health review to be handed in, but the experts’ contracts expire Feb. 15, 2013, said Bill Schwarz, spokesman for the New York State Department of Health.

New York is one of 31 states where energy companies have used hydrofracking to extract natural gas. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study similar to New York’s on the potential health effects of hydrofracking. This study is set to be released in 2014.

Supporters say hydrofracking pollutes the environment and is only a temporary job source. Opponents argue the environmental effects are minimal and hydrofracking could potentially be a big boost to local economies.

“This kind of review is going to serve both those groups in the state,” said Schwarz, the health department spokesman.

Hydrofracking supporters and opponents alike are looking to New York’s health review to bring a conclusion to this drawn-out debate. Among the issues:

  •    Potential Environmental Effects

The major concerns for environmentalists are pollution of air and water, as well as continuing the nation’s dependency on other fossil fuels – coal and oil – for energy.

Sarah Eckel, legislative and policy director for the New York-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, argues that environmental concerns are clear reasons for the state government to ban hydrofracking. “We are unconvinced that this can be done safely in New York,” she said.

Hydrofracking can pollute water sources because many water-treatment facilities are not equipped to decontaminate the water used in the process,  Eckel said. There have also been issues with air pollution in places where there’s hydrofracking, such as Wyoming, she added. “There are parts of Wyoming that have worse air quality standards than Los Angeles,” Eckel said.

But Bryce Hand, an emeritus geology professor at Syracuse University, suggests evidence against hydrofracking is exaggerated. Environmental problems, he said, are unlikely to be devastating.  For example, the only way for hydrofracking water to become contaminated is if there is a problem with the actual drilling operation, he said.

He considers himself an environmentalist and supports hydrofracking for its potential to help solve an even larger problem. “I’m very concerned about global warming,” Hand  said.

Hydrofracking supporters view natural gas as the cleanest fossil fuel and a way to slow global warming. It releases half the carbon dioxide when burned as oil or coal. “By golly, I’m all for that,” Hand said.

John Krohn, spokesperson for Energy In Depth, agreed. Energy in Depth is a research and advocacy arm of the energy industry. Krohn calls for combining natural gas with the development of other alternative energy sources such as wind and solar energy. “Natural gas provides a baseline of power for the renewable energy systems,” Krohn said.

To avoid contaminating groundwater, he said, New York is likely to require specific water systems that recycle the hydrofracking water rather than putting it back into the environment.

  •  Potential Economic Effects

Hydrofracking proponents argue the hydrofracking industry could help New York’s struggling economy.

Of the state’s natural gas reserves compared to the entire country’s,  Krohn said: “I believe that New York holds about 20 percent of the resources.”

The hydrofracking industry creates jobs and makes those jobs that are already in the area more competitive, Krohn said. Also, some landowners, such as farmers, can make money by allowing drilling on their land.

But, opponents, like Sarah Eckel of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, maintain that hydrofracking is just a quick economic jolt that won’t last. Jobs from the gas drilling, she said, last only as long as the construction. “And then,” said Eckel, “they go away.”

In addition, Eckel said, hydrofracking companies often bring in employees from other states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, where drilling is more prevalent.  As a better economic solution,  she recommends further developing New York’s existing industries, such as the wine and tourism industries, to boost the economy and create jobs.

“We’ve really built up our state to have sustainable industry,” she said, “that is not negatively impacting or poorly using our natural resources.”

  •  Potential Health Effects

Research is still needed on how hydrofracking will affect people, said David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at University of Albany. “I understand the importance of having jobs,” he acknowledged, “but we have to do this in a safe fashion.”

Carpenter argues hydrofracking releases radioactivity that occurs naturally in rock found deep in the ground. This radioactivity could cause health problems, he suggests. “I don’t think that we should rush into approving fracking until we are confident that there will not be diseases caused in people that live nearby,” he said.

But if the technology improves and the health risks are no longer present, Carpenter said, the future for hydrofracking could be promising.  “Do I think in the long-term the industry can perfect the method?” he said. “Yes, I do.”

 (Amy Lipman is a senior with dual majors in broadcast journalism and international relations.)


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