Officials in New York have indicated that the decision on whether to lift the moratorium on new "fracking" wells may be delayed. The hotly contested issue of whether to allow the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" to expand in New York has put substantial pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration with thousands of concerned citizens publicly expressing their desire for a ban on fracking in the state. Many have even signed a pledge committing to engage in civil disobedience if Cuomo were to lift the moratorium he put in place for additional study.
During the process of fracking, large quantities of water, along with sand and chemicals, are pumped into shale to crack the rock and allow oil and gas in the seams between layers of the shale to be released. A key part of the controversy with fracking is that the chemicals are not disclosed by all of the companies involved in fracking, which have labeled them "trade secrets," making it harder for people to know what specific chemicals and possible carcinogens are in the fracking fluid and waste water. Fracking has come under heightened scrutiny over the past year as the public has learned more about the toxic chemicals in fracking fluid, the vast quantities of drinkable water that fracking uses and leaves behind as waste, as well as the growing number of links between fracking and the contamination of wells and other health and environmental ills.
New Yorkers Work to "Prevent this Toxic Experiment"
New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens recently announced the state's health department would conduct a health impact review before the environmental impact assessment of fracking would be finished. The draft rules for the state on fracking were proposed on November 30, 2011, and were given a year to be finalized. Recent comments from the New York DEC suggest that the state will miss the pending, November 29, 2012, deadline for issuing final rules which advocates say would mean that the rules would once again be open for public comment and at least one public hearing, buying more time for those seeking a ban. The state has had a moratorium on drilling new wells for four years. If the rules are not completed by the end of November, it is doubtful they would be finalized before the end of the year. Some 80,000 public comments have already been submitted to the agency on whether to allow fracking in the state.
DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said on Friday that the agency was doubtful that it would have finalized rules by the end of November. Although it is not entirely clear how to interpret the vague statements coming from the Cuomo administration, many working towards a ban on fracking have called them a victory. Resistance to fracking in the state has steadily grown over the years, just as pressure from the gas industry on the state to open vast tracts of land to this industrialization has also increased. DeSmog Blog's Brendan DeMelle called the Cuomo administration's decision to partake in a health review an "encouraging move by Gov. Cuomo... given the enormous uncertainties surrounding fracking and unconventional energy development."
New York's southern neighbor, Pennsylvania, has already been heavily drilled, and a growing number of citizens of New York have expressed worry about facing a similar fate as their neighbors who have already suffered adverse environmental impacts from the expansion of drilling in that state. For example, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection has fined major "natural" gas driller Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating 16 families' water supplies as a result of fracking-related activities.
In August, thousands marched in New York to urge Cuomo to ban fracking in the state, and several thousand have committed to civil disobedience if fracking is allowed in the state. Additionally, more than one thousand local businesses have called for the rejection of fracking in New York.
David Braun, regional organizing director at New Yorkers against Fracking and co-founder of United for Action, said that a ban on fracking in New York could start a rolling trend of rejecting the water-intensive practice throughout the country.
"We see that Cuomo is waking up to the mass objections to fracking in the state, but our fight is far from over. If we are able to prevent this toxic experiment from occurring in our state then we will have set a powerful precedent for the rest of the United States to follow," he said.
Despite Possible Delay, New Yorkers Are Wary
But even with the announcement of the health review and related delays from the DEC, activists in New York are wary of the state's leaders and bureaucracy. The state's regulatory and environmental review has been heavily criticized by citizens who accuse the gas industry of unduly influencing government regulators. For example, the industry spent over $150,000 on Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign and industry employees have given at least $1.3 million in campaign contributions to state legislators, according to Common Cause's report "Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets."
"There's no transparency right now and no indication of what they're actually doing -- whether they are actually looking at the health impacts, or if this is a rubber-stamp process by the Department of Health," said John Armstrong, a spokesman for Frack Action.
After the initial announcement, in follow-up interviews with other reporters, the DEC refused to agree that the state would miss the deadline for finalizing rules by late November. "We are working with the Department of Health right now on questions like the scope of the health review, and we haven't made any decisions on whether or not we'll meet the deadline for the regulations," Joe Martens told Bloomberg News.
Under the State Administrative Procedure Act, the agency could potentially get a 90-day extension on finalizing the rules, even if they were to miss the November deadline, but that could result in another public comment period.
"We are still looking into what the state's plans are," National Organizing Director for Food & Water Watch Mark Schlosberg said. "The grassroots movement to ban fracking will not be satisfied until it is clear that the New York community's health, water, and air are protected."