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New York Moves to Ban Fracking
Cuomo Aides Cite Health Risks; Farmers, Energy Firms Attack Decision
By ERICA ORDEN and LYNN COOK
Updated Dec. 18, 2014 12:27 a.m. ET
ALBANY, N.Y.—Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration said Wednesday it would prohibit hydraulic fracturing statewide, citing health concerns and calling the economic benefits to drilling in New York state limited.
The long-awaited decision seals off about 12 million acres of the Marcellus Shale, an underground rock formation with natural-gas reserves that have helped fuel an energy-production boom in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. New York would be the first state with significant potential to become a major natural-gas producer to ban fracking.
Mr. Cuomo’s health and environment commissioners said Wednesday that, after an exhaustive review, the risks of allowing fracking outweighed the economic benefits.
“I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” acting health Commissioner Howard Zucker said at a news conference, adding that he wouldn’t allow his own children to live near a fracking site. He said the “cumulative concerns” about fracking “give me reason to pause.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will issue a legally binding recommendation prohibiting fracking as a result of Dr. Zucker’s conclusion.
Health official Howard Zucker explains fracking ban in Albany, N.Y. ENLARGE
Health official Howard Zucker explains fracking ban in Albany, N.Y. ASSOCIATED PRESS
With the decision, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, came down on the side of environmentalists who had been pressuring him since he took office in January 2011 to make permanent a 2009 moratorium on fracking. Among those supporters was Mr. Cuomo’s close friend and former brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“It’s one of the first examples of a high-level U.S. politician who is willing to stand up to the carbon-energy industry,” Mr. Kennedy said Wednesday of Mr. Cuomo’s decision.
The move drew immediate fire from energy producers and some local communities that saw fracking as a way to revive moribund economies, and they promised to challenge the decision. Towns along the Pennsylvania border have watched with chagrin as jobs and money poured into the neighboring state while New York’s economy stagnated.
Neil Vitale, a dairy farmer in New York’s Southern Tier region, said he had hoped that leasing land to energy companies would help him pay property taxes on some 700 acres of farmland.
RATIONALES FOR MOVE
Potential health and environmental impacts include drinking-water and soil contamination, and methane releases tied to climate change.
Costs associated with regulating fracking could overwhelm local and state governments.
Much of the Marcellus Shale couldn’t be drilled, partly as a result of a court decision upholding towns’ authority to prohibit fracking.
Potential negative consequences for communities include increased truck traffic, noise and odor.
Source: Administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
“The amount of shale available is more valuable than the surface of the land will ever be,” he said. “The state controls the most valuable part of our farm.”
Fracking uses high-pressure water and materials such as sand and chemicals to break open cracks in rock deep underground. A method called horizontal drilling along with fracking is used to extract natural gas.
New York’s decision comes just as crude-oil prices have crashed. The price of U.S. crude has plunged from about $107 a barrel in mid-June to just $55 on Wednesday. Natural-gas prices collapsed to $1.91 per million British thermal units in April 2012, then recovered and have averaged $4.30 so far in 2014.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking Wednesday. ENLARGE
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking Wednesday. ASSOCIATED PRESS
In the face of the collapse in crude, energy companies are starting to cut back how many wells they plan to drill and frack next year. In the short term, it is unclear if there is any appetite for companies to explore for oil and gas in New York, but longer term, there are huge population centers along the East Coast that could benefit from less-expensive fuel pumped in the region.
In neighboring Pennsylvania, energy companies have generated more than $2.1 billion in state and local taxes since the fracking boom began, the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington lobbying group for the energy industry, said Wednesday. Funds have supported road and bridge building, water and sewer projects, local housing initiatives and parks.
According to state data, Pennsylvania’s energy employment has more than doubled from 13,059 jobs in the first quarter of 2010 to 28,229 in early 2014. The average salary for those jobs is roughly $93,000 a year, according to a quarterly tally, more than $40,000 higher than the state average.
Still, communities across the country have moved to ban fracking, including several in the November election, such as Denton, Texas; Athens, Ohio; and two California counties. New York’s decision was highly anticipated.
Last year, Mr. Cuomo said he expected a decision before this November’s election, but it ended up being delayed until after his re-election. He said Wednesday the decision was made by his commissioners, not him. “I don’t think I even have a role here,” he said.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens played down the economic benefits of fracking while citing a laundry list of potential adverse effects: the contamination of drinking-water supplies, the impact on air and on land resources, as well as “community impacts,” including increased truck traffic and wear on roads and bridges.
Supporters for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and anti-fracking demonstrators shout slogans outside a polling site in November. The governor’s administration said Wednesday it would prohibit hydraulic fracturing statewide.
There remains deep dispute over whether fracking poses health risks to people who live nearby. Dr. Zucker said he saw numerous red flags in the “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with” fracking. But Lisa McKenzie, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health who has co-written two studies on the health impacts of drilling in her state, said: “I think there is a potential for health effects, but how significant, we need to do more study.”
—Mike Vilensky, Russell Gold and Alison Sider contributed to this article.
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