The battle over untapped natural gas in New York State appears to have reached its end. Following an extensive public health review of hydraulic fracturing, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a complete ban on the oil and natural gas harvesting practice in the state on Wednesday.
The 184-page report, conducted by the New York State Department of Health, cites potential environmental impacts and health hazards as reasons for the ban. The research incorporates findings from multiple studies conducted across the country and highlights the following seven concerns:
- Respiratory health: The report cites the dangers of methane emissions from natural gas drilling in Texas and Pennsylvania, which have been linked to asthma and other breathing issues. Another study found that 39 percent of residents in southern Pennsylvania who lived within one kilometer of a fracking site developed upper-respiratory problems compared with 18 percent of those who lived more than two kilometers away.
- Drinking water: Shallow methane-migration underground could seep into drinking water, one study found, contaminating wells. Another found brine from deep shale formations in groundwater aquifers. The report also refers to a study of fracking communities in the Appalachian Plateau where they found methane in 82 percent of drinking water samples, and that concentrations of the chemical were six times higher in homes close to natural gas wells. Ethane was 23 times higher in homes close to fracking sites as well.
- Seismic activity: The report cites studies from Ohio and Oklahoma that explain how fracking can trigger earthquakes. Another found that fracking near Preese Hall in the United Kingdom resulted in a 2.3 magnitude earthquake as well as 1.5 magnitude earthquake.
- Climate change: Excess methane can be released into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. One study predicts that fracking in New York State would contribute between 7 percent and 28 percent of the volatile organic compound emissions, and between 6 percent and 18 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the region by 2020.
- Soil contamination: One analysis of a natural gas site found elevated levels of radioactive waste in the soil, potentially the result of surface spills.
- The community: The report refers to problems such as noise and odor pollution, citing a case in Pennsylvania where gas harvesting was linked to huge increases in automobile accidents and heavy truck crashes.
- Health complaints: Residents near active fracking sites reported having symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, nosebleeds, and headaches according to studies. A study in rural Colorado which examined 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 found that those who lived closest to natural gas development sites had a 30 percent increase in congenital heart conditions. The group of births closest to development sites also had a 100-percent increased chance of developing neural tube defects.
In 2008, New York State suspended its fracking activities pending further research into the health, environmental, and economic effects. Since the moratorium six years ago, many different scientific groups have conducted hydraulic fracturing research, as the state’s report reflects.
Howard Zucker, the acting state health commissioner who helped spearhead the report, addressed the ban with Gov. Cuomo in Albany. “I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” said Zucker, according to The Wall Street Journal. He added, “I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking? The answer is no,” The Los Angeles Times reported.
But Cuomo and Zucker’s critics were quick to blast the ban, which they say will cost the state millions in jobs and energy. Dean Skelos, the Republican co-leader of the New York State Senate, said the move was shaped by politics, not science. “The decision implies that at least 30 other states, Senator Schumer and the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency are wrong about the health impacts and do not care about the well-being of millions of American citizens,” he said in a statement. Others have lashed against Zucker’s comments about not letting his family live in a fracking community despite not having children.
Zucker also voiced concern over how little is known about the long-term effects of injecting water and chemicals into the Marcellus shale, the disputed natural gas reserve that has been the subject of debate in New York and elsewhere. The new report, he said, highlights gaps in the current scientific understanding of fracking’s impact on groundwater resources, air quality, radon exposure, noise exposure, traffic, psychosocial stress, and injuries.
“The bottom line is we lack the comprehensive longitudinal studies, and these are either not yet complete or are yet to be initiated," Zucker said according to The Syracuse Post-Standard. "We don't have the evidence to prove or disprove the health effects. But the cumulative concerns of what I've read gives me reason to pause."