Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D, New York) fully backed Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in his decision to have the state’s Health Commission review the possible health consequences of allowing hydraulic fracture, otherwise known as fracking, before allowing it to go forward in the state.
What is fracking? It involves drilling over a mile into shale rock and pumping enormous amounts of “fracking fluids” into the shale to create a release valve of sorts from which the companies can extract the gas. You can read more about it here. What is in “fracking fluids”? A lot (as in millions of gallons) of water, sand, and toxic chemicals are pumped at really high pressure into the earth according to Don’t Frack with New York. In case the name doesn’t make it clear, it is not a fan of fracking and likely wishes it would remain a vaguely euphemistic expletive than a drilling process.
Natural gas companies maintain that there is nothing terribly dangerous about allowing fracking to be used. As far as they are concerned, it’s simply the latest and best way to retrieve gas. Riverkeeper, a clean water advocate in the state, is less sanguine about the process. According to the organization (emphasis added):
The entire West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed (supplying 90% of drinking water to over half the state’s population) sits on top of part of the Marcellus Shale, a large mineral reserve deposit deep beneath the earth’s surface. Oil and gas companies have known about this shale reserve for decades, but the technology to extract natural gas from it has become available only recently. The Marcellus Shale spans across at least five states. o extract natural gas from the mineral reserve, oil companies plan to use a process called “hydraulic fracturing.”
“Fracking” involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into shale formations. This toxic brew, along with any natural gas, is then extracted, or leaked to the surface. Whether any toxic discharges will flow into New York City’s drinking water supply is uncertain.
Riverkeeper opposes the process unless it can be proved that it is being done safely with regard to health and the environment. At this point, they seem to be cautiously encouraged by the decision to hold off on fracking until the health commissioner’s report is in, but other environmental groups are not appeased and are demanding, to no avail, that an independent agency be appointed to conduct the study. Recent polls seem to indicate that public opinion in the state has remained mostly unchanged, with the state being slightly in favor of fracking (Examiner).
The governor maintains that an in house investigation is bound to be more independent than an outside firm that might be swayed by third parties (WNYC). As of this date, there is no time table for the decision and it seems entirely possible that no decision will be made in time for drilling this year.
A careful and studied approach would seem to be best considering the possible environmental and health impacts of hyrdrofracking. Aside from any “toxic brew” and possible leakage, the huge amounts of water being used to extract the gas and the disposal of the run off from that toxic brew seem cause enough for concern and caution. There is even some speculation that fracking can cause earthquakes (you can see that speculation played out in the embedded video). Considering that the Ramapo Fault line runs through the tri-state area, and, more pointedly, near the Indian Point nuclear plant, it seems that caution would be the better part of valor here.