Score 1 for Planet Earth: NY bans fracking


I’ve noted several times over the last year that the tide is turning against fracking for oil and natural gas. The general public has increasingly decided that the often overhyped claims from Big Oil and Gas about job creation aren’t worth the costs to the environment in terms of foul air and polluted water — not to mention an increased risk of earthquakes. This November, even the citizens of Denton, Texas — in the politically red heart of the Lone Star State — voted overwhelmingly to ban unconventional drilling for oil and gas within city limits.

In New York, where a temporary moratorium on fracking has been in place for a couple of years now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed to have been waiting for his expected re-election, also this fall, to make a decision. It also appeared that Cuomo wanted to monitor the temperature of the political climate for as long as possible during those months that he deferred action. But then a funny thing happened along the way. In September, the Democratic incumbent faced a primary challenge from Zephyr Teachout, a liberal activist who made opposition to fracking a cornerstone of her campaign. She didn’t have the money, the name recognition or the time to defeat Cuomo, but she garnered a surprisingly strong 35 percent of the vote. And in the counties where the natural gas industry most wanted to begin fracking, Teachout actually won.

That election may have tipped the scales — in favor of saving the environment and protecting Planet Earth:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration announced on Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of uncertainty over the disputed method of natural gas extraction.

State officials concluded that fracking, as the method is known, could contaminate the air and water and pose inestimable dangers to public health.

That conclusion was delivered during a year-end cabinet meeting Mr. Cuomo convened in Albany. It came amid increased calls by environmentalists to ban fracking, which uses water and chemicals to release oil and natural gas trapped in deeply buried shale deposits.

The question of whether to allow fracking has been one of the most divisive public policy debates in New York in years, pitting environmentalists against others who saw it as a critical way to bring jobs to economically stagnant portions of upstate.

This is very exciting news — and it’s important to remember that it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather, it was the hard work of thousands of dedicated activists — some of them famous, like the actor Mark Ruffalo or Yoko Ono, but most of them just everyday folks — who informed and then rallied the average New Yorker against the environmental hazards of drilling. The thousands of votes that Teachout won in that September primary taught Cuomo a lesson he simply couldn’t ignore.

Indeed, the environmental problems caused by fracking are becoming so perverse that they are hard for anyone to evade, and raise the question of why more jurisdictions don’t ban the practice. Ironically, at this moment of political triumph, the actor and activist Ruffalo was halfway around the world, in England, but even there — in a country with very limited fracking — he saw the ill effects:

While filming a new movie in London, I learned that the sole shale gas well in the nation — just a few hours north of me — has triggered two earthquakes, suffered a “structural integrity failure,” and risked poisoning water supplies.

That’s right: the only fracking well in the United Kingdom failed and caused two earthquakes!

Ruffalo noted in his piece that, for the first time, a majority of Americans now say they oppose fracking, in line with opposition in the rest of the industrialized world. More importantly, he noted that the scientific evidence — which was lacking in the early days of the fracking boom — is coming back, and it’s showing that the harm from this type of drilling greatly outweighs the benefits. For example, some 96 percent of roughly 400 peer-reviewed papers find signs or increased risk of sickness from fracking.

96 percent! In other words, it is roughly the same level of certainty as the occurrence of global warming (which, coincidentally or not, is exacerbated by methane leaks in the gas production process).

Today, New York State showed a way forward on fracking for the rest of America. Like Gov. Cuomo, I noted here on this blog a couple of years ago that the jury was out on the costs and benefits of fracking — and that a moratorium like the one in effect in New York was the right way to go until we learned more details. Many skeptics believed that Gov. Cuomo was stalling in order to give Big Oil and Gas everything it wanted; in a debate this fall he proclaimed that “I’m not a scientist.” But he listened to the scientists, which is more important, and he did the right thing. The jury has come back. It’s time to ban fracking everywhere.

Read the New York Times article about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a fracking ban:

Read more from actor Mark Ruffalo at the Huffington Post about the dangers of fracking:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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