To Frack or Not to Frack – Who Should Answer the Question?

Posted on January 27, 2015 by Catherine R. McCabe

On December 17, 2014, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that high volume hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas (a/k/a “fracking”) will be banned on a state-wide basis.  Is this good law, good science, good policy (or politics)?  Perhaps the most important question is who should decide – states or local governments?  

The DEC’s decision to ban fracking is based on the recommendation of the state’s Department of Health (DOH), which just completed a two-year study of the state of the science on the environmental and public health risks posed by fracking. DEC requested this study after it received over 13,000 public comments on its 2009 draft programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) for a proposed fracking permit program in New York State.

The DOH study concluded that the cumulative body of scientific information demonstrates that there are “significant uncertainties” about the environmental and public health risks of fracking --- including air pollution, drinking water contamination, surface water contamination, earthquakes, and community impacts such as increased vehicle traffic, noise and odor problems.  The DOH concluded that “it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done.” 

In accepting DOH’s recommendation, DEC noted that its own review had identified dozens of potentially significant adverse impacts from fracking, and concluded that “the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits” from fracking.  The Commissioner of DEC directed staff to complete the final programmatic EIS for fracking early this year, after which the fracking ban will be put into place.  (No fracking has been permitted in New York State in the interim.)

The DEC decision follows a June 2014 ruling by the New York’s highest court affirming local governments’ authority under the state’s constitution and statutes to use zoning laws to ban fracking in their jurisdictions.

There are good policy reasons for leaving the decision of whether to allow fracking up to local communities.  After all, they bear most of the environmental and potential public health risks that fracking poses. Local communities may be in the best position to decide whether those risks, or even perceived risks, are worth the economic benefits that fracking development can bring to local economies.  The Town of Dryden and Cooperstown cases make it clear that citizens and neighbors do not always agree on the right outcome for their communities.

But many of the local controversies seem to be based, at least in part, on citizens’ differing perceptions of the nature and level of risk that fracking poses to their environment and health.  Surely, the scientists in the state departments of health and environmental conservation are in a better position to evaluate that risk than local governments or individual citizens.  By making this science-based decision on behalf of all its citizens (whether you agree with it or not), New York State should be given credit for stepping up to perform one of the most basic responsibilities of state government – protecting the public health.   



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