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).