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Fracking’s Future in the U.S. Comes Down to Upcoming New York State Decisions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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New York State is the key battleground that will determine the future of fracking in the U.S., and January 11, 2012, is a turning point. The date ends the public comment period on proposed state regulations that will govern the process: drilling into deep Marcellus shales, fracturing the rock with water and chemicals to release natural gas, and disposing of the resulting wastewater that flows back up the well with the gas. When the comment period opened back in September, few industry or government leaders anticipated the massive antifracking movement that would arise, which has galvanized resistance in states nationwide.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which regulates drilling, has received 21,000 comments to its proposed rules. Officials there say they cannot remember receiving more than 1,000 comments on any prior environmental issue. Opposition to fracking has become a central plank in the Occupy movement, and the attention in New York has prompted other state leaders such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to stop or slow the process of allowing drilling until deeper scientific investigation is done. The primary concern is that the practice could contaminate drinking water supplies.

One New York congressman is using the DEC deadline to reenergize support for tougher national regulations. Maurice Hinchey has been trying to pass a bill known as the FRAC Act that would close a loophole in the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act that prevents the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating fracking. He sent his objections to the DEC’s proposed state rules in a public letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The letter urges the governor to not just amend the proposed regulations, known as the revised draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, but to withdraw them altogether.

In the letter, Hinchey highlights 10 specific problems that he says must be addressed before New York allows drilling, including the lack of a full assessment of public health impacts and the lack of a comprehensive wastewater treatment plan that details where and how large amounts of flowback water will be treated or disposed. Last week scientists said that the injecting of wastewater deep underground for disposal was the likely cause of a magnitude 4.0 earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio. The letter also says that the rules do “not account for new information that has been discovered about the environmental, public health and economic risks associated with the natural gas drilling activity.” And Hinchey says similar issues are being ignored nationwide.

Health experts have gone public, too. On January 9 leading U.S. medical experts attending a technical conference on how best to study the epidemiological and public health aspects of shale gas production released a statement saying that fracking should “be paused so that necessary research can be done into the potential harmful effects on human health.” Adam Law, a doctor at Weill Cornell Medical College and the founding board member of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, said “no one should be unleashing even more fracking before we have the scientific facts.”

Unfazed, the DEC indicates that it hopes to present final rules this spring, although making sense of 21,000 comments might take longer. Governor Cuomo still favors drilling because it would bring jobs to his state, but the public pressure to protect drinking water has become so intense that he has not made any recent announcements supporting fracking, as he was doing before the comment period began. Unwilling to watch idly, gas industry groups on Tuesday hand-delivered thousands of letters to Cuomo and state legislators noting that fracking would create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil, and defending the technique as safe.

If DEC somehow did a turnabout, it could endorse a ban, or a temporary ban until the EPA completes detailed investigations about contamination, preliminary results of which are due later in 2012. The DEC could instead issue rules that are so strict that they amount to a de facto ban, or that at least go further to protect water supplies than the draft regulations would. For example, although proposed rules would not allow fracking in upstate areas that supply water to nine million people in New York City, drilling can take place very close to those reservoirs. Much larger setbacks could be required, to keep drilling much further away. Other states where fracking is widespread and caused problems, such as Pennsylvania and Texas, could potentially revise their own regulations once they see the final rules that New York has writ.

Photo courtesy of popefelix on Flickr

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. captlou3 4:03 pm 01/11/2012

    And the Republican presidential candidates all want to eliminate regulations. Maybe they don’t drink water.

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  2. 2. Forsythkid 4:41 pm 01/11/2012

    And a darkness shall fall over the land as the ignorant lead the blind towards the light.

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  3. 3. ozrkmtndd 4:59 pm 01/11/2012

    Your headline is certainly provocative, but highly inaccurate. Whatever happens in New York, each state will continue making their own decision absent federal regulation. The oil companies will hire the lawyers necessary to prevent that from happening as long as possible. In the meantime fracking will continue in all the other states that need the income from state tax monies that natural gas and oil provide. Heck, in California they don’t consider anything under a 5.0 quake a real quake. States like Louisiana that float on a massive ball of jello, will not even notice if a quake occurs. Don’t overestimate the importance of the local politics in New York. They do not necessarily indicate a national trend. Wait until the rainy day funds of some of these states run out, and Fracking will look better and better. I know this is a new word to most people, and a new concept, but the oil industry has been doing this since the 60′s. If it is truly as dangerous as touted, and I doubt it, why didn’t it occur years ago?

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  4. 4. Bops 6:49 pm 01/11/2012

    Maybe if was because they weren’t pumping massive amounts of chemical wastes down the wells.
    When there’s only a few problems…but that’s not the case here, it’s nation wide.
    Fracking people sound like dirty criminals that should be jailed for a long time. What’s the difference murder over 20 years or 20 minutes.
    I don’t see that there a big difference.

    I sure there are clean and safer ways to get the job done.

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  5. 5. sault 1:18 am 01/12/2012

    At least repeal the loophole that allows fracking activities, and fracking activities ONLY, to be exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act! How is it fair when every other company / energy producer has to abide by the rules while fracking is exempt because of political connections and campaign contributions? If fracking is such a good process and as profitable as all the noise about it from industry would suggest, then actually having to follow the rules that everybody else has to shouldn’t be a problem anymore, right?

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:03 am 01/12/2012

    “ozrkmtndd”, you are correct, and West Virginia is an excellent example of your remarks. We are probably the second richest state in the nation when it comes to our natural resources and we are the second poorest state in the nation economy wise because we are the blind and stupid leading the blind and stupid and we don’t care who knows it. Our governor, who Mrs. Jones’s third grade class is smarter, got her class to write the rules for fracking in the state. West Virginia will do anything for a dollar and is forging ahead with the fracking of the shell. We don’t worry about the water tables because we already allowed the Mountain Top Removal coal companies to doze the water tables under and we are now depending on rain run off to supply our water that we catch in lakes and puddles outside peoples homes. If you don’t like how the water taste, you can always go to the store and buy bottle water that we import from Penn. and New York. Our moto: “We do things wright!!”

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  7. 7. CopperCowboy 5:17 pm 01/12/2012

    Here in Garfield County, CO it is far too late to manage or stop fracking, our problem in the next twenty years will be to hold these corporate criminals responsible for the damage they have already done and the people whose health they have ruined. Good luck in the east, nothing has stopped it here.

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  8. 8. MadScientist72 10:00 am 01/13/2012

    “At least repeal the loophole that allows fracking activities, and fracking activities ONLY, to be exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act!”
    Whoa! Everybody get ready for the apocalypse! Sault & I actually AGREE on something!

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  9. 9. LuAnne Kozma 9:17 pm 01/13/2012

    Other states are indeed watching what happens in New York state. We formed a group in Michigan called Ban Michigan Fracking.

    We are opposed to fracking ‘reform’ legislation introduced lately in our state house that would impose a similar frack study/frack panel as NY state has, and to be funded by the gas industry…. and chosen by our state regulatory agencies, who already believe they are fracking safely enough here. It’s only to install “safe” fracking.
    The companies here are fracking in our state forests, and China is investing billions in companies to frack here. While companies like Chesapeake are scamming lease holders.
    The only way to protect human health and the environment is to ban this practice.

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  10. 10. jrvz 5:19 am 01/16/2012

    Concern over fracking is not only nationwide, in the USA?, but worldwide. We have major international oil companies wanting to frack here in South Africa. We are also mainly concerned about water pollution. We have heard that they use huge amounts of water for each site, and we are also severely concerned about where they are going to get this water from in the semi-arid Karroo – are they wanting to use the local water which we badly need for our towns and farms? We are also worried about the large amount of polluted water that comes back up from the holes, and is evidently stored in open “wast water ponds” from where it can easily escape and cause widespread water pollution.

    The comment from “Forsythkid” rings a bell here. From where I sit politics in the USA looks like a circus, with politicians as the clowns. However our politicians are just as bad.

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  11. 11. noprob 1:48 am 01/27/2012

    I’ve worked the oil patch aka oil field from 1981 to 1992 as a floor hand(worm),chain and motorman to derricks.
    This is a very demanding work environment,that all said it never “felt” right or correct to punch holes in Mother nature,but the pay kept me.
    As to all this hoop and holler about “fracking” it has been going on for some time now (half a century?)and “”we the people” just now have a clue?
    I don’t recall using city water while living in the state of Oklahoma,Texas or Louisiana to make my coffee or drink as it did not taste well.
    just my 2¢

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