State of the Planet

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

A protest in Syracuse, New York. Source:

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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13 years ago

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 hydraulic fracture is currently verboten, this ban will only affect low volume (traditional) hydraulic fracturing.

Although the bill is intended to only affect the Utica and Marcellus shales, it is written in a way that will ban drilling in all of New York’s natural gas formations.

The other people affected will be farmers that have signed leases. By banning drilling outright, natural gas companies will rightly claim “force majeure” and be able to trap farmers in less attractive leases.

So – the Chesapeakes of the world (who were not going to get a permit anyway due to the SGEIS process) will benefit by having the clock on their leases set in “time out” while the moratorium runs.

Farmers hoping to strike a better deal get punished.

And the traditional drillers in western ny – those using low volume hydraulic fracturing – will be put out of business.

13 years ago

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 water quality? if you were truly arguing for the sake of the farmer, it seems your energies would be better directed elsewhere than against this moratorium.

13 years ago

[…] 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, […]

13 years ago

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 (no high-volume hydrofracture) gas drilling in Far Western NY?

I know the bill is wildly popular, but I’m just not seeing how this bill is a benefit to anyone. Who does it protect?

13 years ago

@ 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 the current natural gas rush occurring throughout the U.S. due to some of the unknown or understudied environmental and health impacts. I can provide numerous sources to you expressing these concerns (USGS, EPA, and research by other groups.)

> To gain knowledge through studies about those potential impacts so as to find best practices/safest practices for hydrofracking.

> To make sure that farmers and other landowners interested in fracking will not unwittingly contribute to the pollution of their and their neighbors land, water, and air.

In the end, you ask “how this bill is a benefit to anyone. Who does it protect?”

New York State’s citizens, land, water, and air. Since high-volume hydrofracking is likely to happen in NYS shouledn’t we listen to Range Resources natural gas company vice president, Ray Walker, who said, “My mother told me, and I’m sure your mother told you, it’s always better and cheaper to do it right the first time.”

For a more detailed response:
More Science, Please: Some New Yorkers Want a Statewide Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracturing

13 years ago

[…] 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 […]

13 years ago

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