January 30, 2012

Fractured Arguments

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THIS WEEK, THE TOMPKINS COUNTY Council of Governments released a study detailing the potential positive and negative effects of hydraulic fracturing — a process in which chemicals are injected deep into the ground to break apart rocks and release natural gas — on Tompkins County. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) is expected to decide in the next few months how New York State will address the issue of hydraulic fracturing. As Cuomo considers implementing a statewide policy allowing the practice, it is critical that he acknowledge the strong outcry and persistent concerns within local communities and governments.

More than 20 cities and towns in New York — including Ithaca —  have passed local bans, weighing serious environmental concerns in a context of inconclusive and conflicting research. Some research examines the number of jobs that could be created in the region if New York allows oil companies to implement hydraulic fracturing, concluding that fracturing would ultimately benefit the area. Other research cites the potential environmental consequences, concluding that the practice would only cause harm. Just last month, an Environmental Protection Agency draft study found that hydraulic fracturing was likely to blame for contaminated water near the town of Pavillion, Wy.

These divergent conclusions are even at play within Cornell itself. One Cornell researcher found that natural gas obtained from hydraulic fracturing leaves a greater greenhouse gas footprint than burning coal. Another attacked these claims, asserting that natural gas from shale is in fact cleaner than coal.

The Ithaca Common Council’s decision to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing on City-owned land is based on several serious environmental concerns. Many fear that the presence of drilling sites may decrease tourism — the area’s second largest industry after higher education. In addition, Ithacans worry that the chemicals, injected deep into the ground and stored in large above-ground pits, may seep into surrounding water supplies. This possibility carries tremendous implications for the region. One of the most troubling factors for small towns like Ithaca, and likely one of the driving influences behind the emergence of this local legislation, is that the research into these risks is incomplete. The scientific community is still divided on the magnitude of these risks, and the federal government is still conducting research into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

Though it is doubtful that researchers will ever arrive at a unanimous consensus on this topic,  New York municipalities like Ithaca, Dryden and Middlefield have demonstrated that there is still not enough certainty about the practice to justify the environmental risks. Before any policies allowing hydraulic fracturing are implemented, the risks must be further minimized.

The fact that local governments are turning down economic benefits that may come with oil development suggests that Cuomo should reconsider allowing fracturing at all. The wave of local legislation to stop hydraulic fracturing should encourage Cuomo to postpone his decision and await more information. If Cuomo decides to allow hydraulic fracturing at this juncture and implement regulation currently suggested by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, he would be ignoring the judgements of risk made by the constituencies that this policy would directly affect.