The hydrofracking issue survived the winter, and will again encounter opposition at the grass-roots level
You know that mitten you always find in the driveway emerging from the snow once the spring thaw comes?
Like the lost mitten, now that the snow and ice are finally melting away, you may soon find that the debate on hydrofracking hasn’t gone away—it was just out of sight. This spring, gas industry proponents of this controversial method for getting the gas under our feet into our homes and workplaces are counting on a new ally in the White House.
Since last fall, the Obama administration has given several subtle signals that they view hydrofracking as a valuable component of the nation’s energy future. In case the chilly winter has frozen your brain, here’s a brief review of the issue.
Hydrofracking is shorthand for “high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing” a relatively new technology with the potential to release heretofore unreachable gas deposits, including those buried under northern Pennsylvania and New York’s Southern Tier. Hyrdrofracking supporters like to refer to the Marcellus shale just to our south as the next Saudi Arabia, minus the despotic rulers, the long trek across the ocean, and the use of the term “crude.” They advertise shale gas as clean energy that could power the United States for decades, long enough to bridge the gap to a genuine renewable energy economy.
Opponents warn of dangers to the environment due to the vast amounts of water needed, the chemicals added to the water, and the issues involved in treatment of the “frack” water once it comes back up--not to mention concerns about air pollution, radioactive wastewater and degradation of the landscape.
Most of the action on this issue has taken place at the state level. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is lumbering through the process of devising regulations for such drilling, and for the moment a de-facto moratorium by executive order is in place through July 1. One of Gov. David Paterson’s last acts in his final month in office was to suspend the issuance of high-volume fracking permits for six months and to order the DEC to move the regulation process forward.
Upset that the gas industry is not regulated under federal water safety legislation, environmentalists have pushed for greater federal oversight, and last year the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of the issue. Consensus in the state Legislature appears to back waiting for that review before allowing high-volume fracking in New York.
President Barack Obama has not blocked that review, but last October the Army Corps of Engineers did deny a request from Southern Tier Rep. Maurice Hinchey to stop exploratory drilling in the Chesapeake basin until the study was completed. And during his State of the Union address in January, Obama made gas industry execs happy by including natural gas in his list of clean energy sources, ignoring the distinction between clean energy and renewable energy.
Here’s what the president said: “I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.”
That sounds like a politician who needs Pennsylvania, but it doesn’t sound much like the environmental steward many would like to see.
Meanwhile, Hinchey, reacting to a recent New York Times story on the lack of regulation on frack water, is calling on Congress to hold hearings to investigate water safety.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, focused on our budget woes, maintains near total silence on this crucial issue. During the campaign he was non-committal, and environmentalists are wary of where he will come down. With gas drilling proponents promising healthy revenue injections into state coffers if the Marcellus shale drilling takes off, fracking opponents shouldn’t expect much help from either the Governor’s Mansion or the White House on this one.
A very deep subject: This hydrofracking well, and others like it in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, will receive renewed attention as we enter spring.