Cuomo to Ban Fracking as Health Officials Call It Unsafe

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Anti-Fracking Demonstrators in NY
Anti-fracking demonstrators protest in New York City, on Sept. 23, 2014. Photographer: Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

The New York state Health Department said fracking for natural gas can’t be done safely, dooming prospects that Governor Andrew Cuomo will end a six-year moratorium.

Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said at a cabinet meeting in Albany today that studies on the extraction technique’s effects on water, air and soil are inconsistent, incomplete and raise too many “red flags” to allow.

“I consider the people of the state of New York as my patients,” said Zucker, a medical doctor. “We cannot afford to make a mistake. The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not fully known.”

Parts of New York sit atop the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation, and the governor has been trying to balance the prospects for the economic development seen in Ohio and Pennsylvania against environmentalists’ warnings that fracking may taint water and make farmland unusable.

Fracking, in which water and chemicals are injected into shale to free oil and gas, is allowed in at least 32 states. California is working on an environmental review of the process, and local communities across the U.S. are mobilizing to stop it. In November, voters in Athens, Ohio; Denton, Texas; and California’s Mendocino and San Benito counties passed measures banning fracking.

The ban in New York will harm the economy and deprive local governments and the state of revenue, according to the American Petroleum Institute’s New York State Petroleum Council.

“Today’s action by Governor Cuomo shows that New York families, teachers, roads and good-paying jobs have lost out to political gamesmanship,” said Karen Moreau, executive director of the oil-and-gas trade group.

2008 Ban

The state banned gas drilling by high-volume hydraulic fracturing in July 2008 so regulators could conduct an environmental review and develop rules. In September 2012, Cuomo said he wouldn’t decide the issue until after health officials studied it.

Cuomo, a 57-year-old Democrat about to begin his second term, said today he’ll let science, not politics, determine his final decision.

“I will be bound by what the experts say,” Cuomo said at the cabinet meeting before Zucker spoke.

Since Governor David Paterson issued the New York moratorium, the average natural-gas price on the New York Mercantile Exchange has fallen 62 percent, declining to $3.70 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Existing Restrictions

The potential for drilling in New York was already hobbled by restrictions the state is planning should it move forward, said Joe Martens, the commissioner of the Environmental Conservation Department. The regulations, along with bans imposed by towns and cities, cut out at least 63 percent of the 12 million acres where gas could be tapped by fracking, Martens said.

“The economic benefits are clearly far lower than originally forecast,” Martens said. “The low price of gas only exacerbates this.”

In Pennsylvania, where fracking is permitted, more than $630 million has been distributed to communities since 2012, according to the New York State Petroleum Council’s statement. The shale energy industry has generated $2.1 billion in state and local tax revenue for Pennsylvania, the group said.

Federal regulations and state laws provide adequate environmental protection, the group said.

Environmental Groups

In the six years since New York’s moratorium took effect, many leases expired and companies left New York to drill in Ohio and Pennsylvania, industry lawyers and lobbyists said.

“I don’t know of anybody who is shovel-ready waiting for an announcement,” Thomas S. West, an Albany lawyer who said he represents several companies with New York leases as clients, said in an interview before the announcement.

The health department spent more than 4,500 hours on its analysis, reviewing academic studies, consulting experts and meeting with health officials in other states, Zucker said. The studies and data showed many potential health risks, including groundwater contamination in Wyoming and increased traffic deaths in areas of Pennsylvania.

The report “concludes that it will be years until science and research provide sufficient information to determine the level of risk HVHF poses to public health and whether those risks can be adequately mitigated,” the Health Department said in a statement released after the decision. HVHF is an abbreviation for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Environmental groups cheered the move, saying Cuomo demonstrated “courage” and “national leadership.’

‘‘Mounting scientific evidence points to serious health risks from fracking operations,’’ Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. ‘‘New Yorkers have made it loud and clear that we want to keep this reckless industry at bay. With this announcement, the governor has listened.’’

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to change National to Natural in the final paragraph.)

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