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Letter: With Care, Fracking Can Work in NY

While it is true that the issues related to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” are not simple we should not be influenced by much of the misinformation that has been disseminated and we should base our decisions on the facts and develop a regulatory regime which can assure safety and environmental sensitivity.

It is ironic that natural gas development, which can reduce carbon emissions by a third compared to oil and a half compared to coal, is caught in an emotional debate over environmental impacts. As businessman and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, using data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, this abundant new gas source has reduced our oil imports from 60 percent in 2005 to 47 percent today. Recent events in the Middle East should reinforce the need for a U.S. energy policy based on domestic natural gas.

Gas drilling has created thousands of jobs and is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into regional economies. Yet we remain dependent on imports for 95 percent of the oil used in the tri-state region, often supporting producing nations hostile to our interests. It is time that significant energy can be saved through conservation and should be pursued and this should be incorporated with greater use of renewable resources. These resources should be combined with additional supplies of natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel, as part of an overall energy policy.

Economic and energy benefits, however, do not justify environmental harm. This is New York State, where we care deeply about our water quality, the air we breathe, and our lands and forests. That is why, since 2008, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been engaged in a thoughtful, comprehensive, deliberate review of the complete range of fracking’s environmental impacts, and has proposed stringent standards for controlling and mitigating them. By design, the review process has been inclusive, providing an opportunity for the public, environmental advocates, industry, landowners and other stakeholders to speak on the issues.

The DEC recently extended the public comment period to Jan. 11. After that, the state will finalize the environmental impact review and publish regulations, taking into account thousands of comments it has received. We will then combine effective regulation with responsible, transparent drilling practices and state-of-the-art technology, to recover this resource with little environmental impact.

As with many other industrial processes, we can reduce the risk of environmental harm down to negligible levels with appropriate technical standards and best practices, including proper well design, water management and waste-disposal techniques.

Those regions within the state that embrace the challenge will rely on the DEC for strict oversight, and will require money to successfully manage local issues such as road standards and community impacts. Recognizing that these challenges go beyond controlling the environmental impacts of the drilling process, the governor has created an advisory panel to ensure proper staffing for oversight, recommend ways of mitigating impacts to local governments, and develop a fee structure to fund oversight and infrastructure needs. Unlike many other states, in New York we have created a window of opportunity to understand, plan for, and address the environmental and other impacts before drilling starts.

Gas drilling is not new to our state. Thousands of conventional wells have been drilled with little notice under a very effective regulatory system. The proposed drilling in shale formations presents new issues, including chemicals pumped underground and naturally occurring radioactive elements in wastewater. Although DEC has been working hard to address them, the oil and natural gas industry has done a poor job of acknowledging and responding to the legitimate fears of residents. Indeed, the debate has grown so divisive and people are so busy being “for” or “against” fracking, that there is hardly any public discussion of critical engineering, technical, and regulatory requirements to ensure the environmental safety of this process.

The DEC must move to issue its regulations, industry needs to communicate more transparently and effectively, and all stakeholders together must find a way to fund the needs of local governments as they meet the demands of this opportunity in their communities. It is fair to keep the economic issues out of a determination of environmental protection, but it is not fair to judge the impacts without sticking to the facts. We have a chance to get it right, to strengthen the economy, and to clear the air.

Robert B. Catell
Chairman, Advanced Energy Research and
Technology Center (AERTC)
Stony Brook University