In a historic victory for public and environmental health, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday moved to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) within state lines. The decision followed the release of a long-anticipated public health study that found many potential negative impacts from the natural gas drilling method. The announcement comes as a relief to state advocates who have been urging officials to ban fracking for years due to its environmental and public health risks.
New York State has had a de facto ban on fracking since 2008 while officials awaited the release of an environmental impact report and a public health impact study. Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens and State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker shared the results of the public health study with Governor Andrew Cuomo during a cabinet meeting on Dec. 17. They highlighted the “many red flags” raised by fracking and noted the shortage of scientific studies examining these risks. Dr. Zucker concluded by saying that he would not want own his child to play near fracking wells and that he cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing anywhere in New York.
“I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered,” said Dr. Zucker. “I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
Gov. Cuomo previously noted that he would defer to the experts when determining the fate of fracking in New York. The study and the advice from top environmental and health officials convinced him that the risks from fracking are too high.
Fracking’s Many Risks
When New York first initiated its statewide fracking moratorium in 2008, relatively little was known about the health and environmental impacts of this drilling technique. Fracking injects water and chemicals deep underground to fracture bedrock and release trapped oil or natural gas. The technique is behind the oil and gas booms in states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
Industry continues to assure citizens that fracking is “safe,” but a growing body of scientific evidence has raised significant concerns with the practice, with numerous studies identifying public health risks and environmental impacts. A recent study across five states detected dangerous levels of cancer-causing substances in the air near fracking sites. Other research has found evidence that waste fluids from fracking can leak harmful chemicals into the water supply. Moreover, a recent analysis of scientific studies, medical research, and government and industry reports concluded that regulations are not capable of preventing these dangers.
New York’s public health impact study, led by its Department of Health, focused on a wide scope of impacts, from land and water pollution to effects on communities.
The study identified several areas likely to be negatively impacted by fracking:
- Air quality: Methane emissions from natural gas wells have been well documented. Additionally, pollution from trucks traveling to and from well sites increases airborne emissions of benzene, a cancer-causing substance, and toxic particles. Such pollution contributes to climate change, increases cancer risks, and exacerbates respiratory diseases.
- Water quality: Faulty well construction can allow methane to escape into groundwater, polluting a critical drinking water source that many people depend on. Spills and inadequate waste disposal can also contaminate water sources.
- Seismic activity: Fracking has been linked to increased earthquakes in many regions, producing possible public safety concerns.
- Community impacts: Rapid construction and operation of fracking wells can be accompanied by increases in crime, traffic fatalities, and other disturbances that impact the quality of life for nearby communities.
The impact study relied on research conducted in other states where extensive fracking is currently taking place. As Zucker and Martens emphasize, more research is needed to fully understand the risks associated with fracking. In the meantime, New York State has chosen to play it safe. “We cannot afford to make a mistake,” said Zucker. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”
New York Not Alone in Scrutinizing Fracking Hazards
Other states, including California and New Mexico, have moratoriums on fracking or pending bans on the practice. Additionally, several towns and cities across the country have banned fracking within their borders. Within New York State alone, 180 municipalities have issued bans or moratoriums, speaking to the force of the anti-fracking movement within the state.
New York State’s decision comes just weeks after Maryland’s governor announced he will allow fracking in the state. Outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley is drafting strict regulations for fracking, which will go into effect after he leaves office in January. It remains to be seen whether these proposed rules – which some claim will be the strongest in the nation – will sufficiently protect against the many concerns outlined in New York’s public health study.