According to the New York Times, a study by the New York Department of Health has determined that the controversial natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can be safely regulated to eliminate any significant health concerns associated with chemical exposure. However, the study has not yet been officially released, and a spokesman from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has stated that the version obtained by the Times is outdated and will be substantially changed when it is included in the latest revision to the state’s environmental impact statement, which is expected within the next few months. As a result, the fate of the state’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing remains uncertain, even though Governor Cuomo could let the fracking ban expire as early as next month.
Fracking is the process of injecting a mix of chemicals, sand, and water into a shale formation, coalbed, or other rock layer to break apart the rock, allowing gas trapped inside to escape and be captured by a drilling unit. Hydraulic fracturing is especially effective when combined with horizontal drilling, which drills across a shale play to access a greater portion of the rock formation than with standard vertical drilling. The increased drilling area creates many more fractures, allowing significantly more gas to be captured. This makes the fracking process economically viable, which has vastly increased the amount of recoverable natural gas in the United States. By far, the largest shale play in the country is the Marcellus Shale, which stretches primarily through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia. The Marcellus Shale is estimated to contain between 141 trillion to 500 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, providing tremendous economic potential to the region and increasing the pressure to allow hydraulic fracturing. Natural gas is also considered environmentally desirable because it produces roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of the coal it can replace.
Although natural gas is both economically and environmentally beneficial and hydraulic fracturing has the potential to make the United States “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” as President Obama has stated, the fracking process has become controversial as a result of uncertainty about its environmental risks. The primary concern is the potential for the chemicals used in fracking fluid to seep into and contaminate water supplies. Because of these fears and claims of contaminated water near various fracking sites from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, New York placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2008. However, given the economic benefits being realized by other states extracting shale gas, such as the estimated 240,000 jobs in the oil and gas field in Pennsylvania, as well as a strong push from the gas industry to allow fracking, the study from the Department of Health seems to be another step toward slowly and cautiously bringing hydraulic fracturing to New York.
The Department of Health study found that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely with adequate regulation. The key for states in the Marcellus Shale region is to find the right balance in encouraging development of the Marcellus Shale while identifying the necessary regulations that will ensure safety. When the New York Department of Health’s full study is incorporated into the revised environmental impact statement, it will provide an important guide to the regulation necessary to prevent groundwater contamination. These findings will be examined by other Marcellus Shale states, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, who are also trying to determine the necessary safeguards to allow fracking. This study could additionally provide an important comparison to the study being conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the final draft of which is expected in 2014. The EPA previously studied hydraulic fracturing used to extract coalbed methane in 2004 and could not confirm any link between fracking and water contamination, though this study has been widely criticized as politically motivated and too narrowly-focused, resulting in Congress asking the EPA to study the issue further. As these and other studies are released over the next few years, states and the federal government should have a much clearer picture of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, allowing them to regulate it in a way that minimizes its risks while still taking advantage of the vast economic and environmental benefits of shale gas.
Written by Robert J. Van Auken, GIELR staff