Empire state to ban fracking; environmentalists cheer

ALBANY, N.Y. – Handing environmentalists a breakthrough victory, New York plans to prohibit fracking for natural gas because of what regulators say are its unexplored health risks and dubious economic benefits.

New York, which overlies part of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation that has led to a drilling boom in Pennsylvania and other nearby states, has banned shale gas development since 2008, when the state began an environmental review of the drilling technique also known as hydraulic fracturing.

Wednesday’s announcement, though not final, means a ban is all but etched in stone.

“Never before has a state with proven gas reserves banned fracking,” said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, adding that the decision “will give courage to elected leaders throughout the country and world: Fracking is too dangerous and must not continue.”

Industry and its supporters expressed outrage at the decision.

“We are very disappointed that it appears the governor is unwilling to be a leader and is going to pass the buck at the expense of New Yorkers,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.

“This technology has been used for over 65 years in the United States. It’s been demonstrated repeatedly after drilling millions of wells that we’re able to do it while protecting the environment and protecting the people.”

Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said Wednesday that he is recommending a ban, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, responded that he would defer to Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on the decision.

The Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, Martens said, and after that he will issue an order prohibiting fracking.

About 30 anti-fracking activists cheered the decision at a rally outside Cuomo’s New York City office, chanting “Thank you, Governor Cuomo, for saving our air!” and “New York banned fracking – and next, United States!”

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf opposes this type of ban, Jeff Sheridan, his press secretary, said.

“(Wolf) will work hard to make sure the process is safe,” Sheridan said. “Pennsylvania’s natural resources should help the commonwealth become an energy leader, including renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as a magnet for investment and job creation.

Wolf’s priority is to ensure that Pennsylvania is an energy leader with all Pennsylvanians sharing in the prosperity, Sheridan said.

“Governor-elect Wolf will work to strengthen the rules governing drilling, increase enforcement of the rules, hire more inspectors, and create a health registry to monitor health issues,” Sheridan said.

Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized environmental and health reviews that concluded fracking carries risks that haven’t been studied enough.

The drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, which also runs under Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure.

The technique has generated tens of billions of dollars in industry profits and landowner royalties, and has reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it has also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation and truck traffic.

Sun-Gazette reporter Alyssa Maneval contributed to this report.