Is New York governor's ban on fracking grounded in science?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration announced Wednesday that the state will ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Opponents of the ban claim that the governor's concerns about health and environmental impacts are unfounded.

Mike Segar/Reuters
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo addresses New York Healthcare workers at the Jacob Javits Convention center in New York, October 21. Governor Cuomo's administration said Thursday, it will ban hydraulic fracturing in the state after a long-awaited report concluded that the gas-drilling method poses health risks.

To frack, or not to frack? That was the question facing New York, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) decided not to.

Governor Cuomo announced Wednesday that New York would prohibit fracking over health and environmental concerns. The ban ends years of uncertainty in the state over hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – the controversial practice that injects a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals underground to unlock stores of natural gas and oil trapped inside shale rock.

Few environmental issues have inspired as much animosity and disagreement as fracking. Environmentalists say fracking can contaminate drinking water, cause earth tremors, and encourage reliance on emissions-heavy fossil fuels. Those concerns led New York to put a moratorium on fracking in 2008.

But the scientific work assessing the risks of fracking is far from consistent. In fact, many states have determined the practice is safe. From North Dakota to Texas to Pennsylvania, fracking has kicked off a shale boom that’s created jobs, boosted oil and natural gas production, and helped US power plants move away from dirtier-burning coal.

“Clearly this is where science becomes interwoven with politics,” says Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “[New York’s] view is not the view that’s been reached in a number of other states.”

Officials – including members of Obama’s Cabinet – have questioned some of environmentalists’ scientific claims.

“I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater,” Secretary Moniz said at a breakfast hosted by the Monitor last year.

According to a study released in September, drilling itself – not fracking – has caused the negative side effects some blame on fracking.

"People's water has been harmed by drilling," said study co-author Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental and earth sciences at Stanford and Duke Universities, in a statement.

Still, other scientists agree with New York, and argue the risks – however uncertain – outweigh the benefits.

“The unmistakable conclusion is that shale gas development poses unacceptable risks to the climate and to individuals living near shale gas fields,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, in a statement Wednesday. “While too many political leaders have continued to ignore this evidence, New Yorkers can be proud of our Governor.”

New York's acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker admitted the science was unresolved as he announced the ban Wednesday. Regardless, Dr. Zucker argued, the stakes were too high to move ahead with the practice.

“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” Dr. Zucker said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”

The oil and gas industry pointed out that other states have found fracking to be safe. 

Cuomo “acted irresponsibly” in banning fracking, says Karen Moreau, the executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, an oil and gas industry group.

“A politically motivated and equally misinformed ban on a proven technology used for over 60 years ... is short-sighted and reckless, particularly when New York depends on safely produced natural gas just over the border in Pennsylvania,” Ms. Moreau said in a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, environmentalists applauded Cuomo’s prohibition and hoped it would encourage other states to follow suit.

“There is no safe way to frack,” Zack Malitz, campaign manager at progressive group CREDO, said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo has now set the national standard, and all eyes are now on California’s Governor Jerry Brown.”

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