In our book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction in New York State and the NYS Department of Health review of the process. On December 17, 2014, the NYS Department of Health announced that the public health review had been completed and the recommendation was made that New York State should not permit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). The acting commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. 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.” The commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, added:
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS [Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement]. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
With those statements, months of speculation ended. This was a considerable victory for the grassroots environmental movement that grew up in response to this issue and indeed for citizens of New York State.
The NYS DOH recognized that “there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health.” Based on this, they decided that the risks were too great and that science should be allowed to move forward until a more definitive statement can be made. This does not rule out using the practice in the future, it is simply a statement that with this level of uncertainty, we should err on the side of public health. This enlightened approach to public health policy is rarely seen in our society that is largely ruled by politicians who seem to owe more of a debt to corporate interests than to public interest.
For New York State, this means that unconventional fossil fuel extraction will not move forward in the foreseeable future, but it does not prevent other environmental and health impacts from this industry. One of the most dramatic and far reaching controversies is over the storage of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by Crestwood LLC in geologically unstable salt caverns under Seneca Lake, one of the largest of the Finger Lakes in Central New York and the source of drinking water for more than 100,000 people. Seneca Lake has emerged as one of the world’s premier wine growing regions and the importance of the wine industry to the economy of New York is growing rapidly. Crestwood’s plan to make the Seneca Lake area the major gas storage and transportation hub in the Northeast has run into a wave of protests from winery owners, other business owners in the area, and the public at large. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the expansion of the LNG facility, but the construction of the LPG facility has yet to be approved by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. With all of the questions concerning the safety of storing explosive materials in fragile geological formations, the effects of the surface operations (brine ponds, increased truck and rail traffic, etc.) on the environment, and the impacts of these industrial operations on the burgeoning wine industry, this controversy will continue and intensify.
In addition to these storage facilities, New York State is targeted as the route for a number of new large pipelines for natural gas transport from Pennsylvania to the Northeast both for use in these states as well as for liquefaction and transport to lucrative foreign markets. Along these routes, some of which are formed from eminent domain seizures from reluctant landowners, are compressor stations that are of great concern to residents. Despite the presence of these large compressor stations throughout the country, we know little definitive information about the environmental and health effects for people and animals living in close proximity.
Finally, the massive amounts of wastewater produced in HVHF wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio must find a final resting place. This wastewater contains variable amounts of heavy metals, toxic organics, and radioactive material. Some of this waste has found its way to treatment plants and landfills in New York State, none of which have the facilities to treat or test these drilling byproducts. Further, in its previous rendition of the SGEIS for unconventional gas drilling, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation proposed a “beneficial use” of drilling wastewater for road deicing with completely inadequate prior testing.
The fight of environmental groups in New York State to keep out unconventional oil and gas extraction has been won in the short term. The long-term prospects depend on the political winds, future advances in petroleum engineering, and future scientific studies of the safety of the current processes and those that are yet to be invented. In the meantime, the environmental movement in New York will stay vigilant.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michelle Bamberger is a veterinarian and the author of two books on first aid for cats and dogs. Robert Oswald is a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University and the recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships. Bamberger and Oswald serve on the advisory board of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, and live in Ithaca, New York.