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NY Fracking Report Underscores Quake, Climate Risks

New York is 2,000 pages closer to becoming the first fossil fuels-rich state in the U.S. to ban fracking indefinitely because of the climate-changing methane it could emit and the earthquakes, air pollution and water contamination it could cause.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in December that fracking, short for the natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, would be banned in New York, where the energy-rich Marcellus shale holds up to 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The state followed up this week with a 2,000-page final environmental report outlining why it would be better off without the environmental, climate and public health implications of the process.

A typical Marcellus shale natural gas drilling operation in Pennsylvania, where fracking is common. New York is in the process of banning the practice to produce natural gas.
Credit: Penn State University/flickr

No other energy-rich state has successfully banned fracking beyond a handful of local jurisdictions. In Maryland, where two counties in the western part of the state overlie the Marcellus shale, the legislature has passed a temporary ban on fracking, which expires in two years. The New York ban is an administrative action that could be reversed by a future governor.

Fracking, which has brought about the U.S. shale oil and gas boom along with advancements in drilling technology, has several climate implications. Perhaps most significantly, extracting and transporting natural gas emits large amounts of methane, which is about 35 times as potent as a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

But natural gas produced using fracking is also leading to the displacement of carbon-heavy coal as the nation’s primary fuel for electric power generation. The Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan call for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, the primary drivers of climate change.

“The most obvious climate change question is: Will abundant natural gas and cheap natural gas lead to the phaseout of coal-fired power plants or slow the adoption of renewable electricity, and that dynamic, more than anything else, will determine the greenhouse gas consequences,” Rob Jackson, professor of environmental and earth system science at Stanford University, said after the announcement of the ban. “The decision to leave the fossil fuel in the ground clearly affects cumulative emissions and long-term climate change.”

New York State’s answer to that question is this: Replacing coal with natural gas may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it may also suppress investment in solar and wind power and energy efficiency measures because those clean energy sources could become less cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

A map of the shale gas plays in the Northeast showing nearly all of western New York within the Utica and Marcellus shale plays.
Credit: Penn State University

“In the long term, New York’s policies are directed towards achieving substantial reductions in GHG emissions by reducing reliance on all fossil fuels, including natural gas,” the report says.

Abundant natural gas streaming from Upstate New York wells would also come with intolerable human health and environmental costs, including degraded air quality from increased amounts of vehicle exhaust and particulate matter in the air, and possible groundwater and surface water contamination from poor well construction and chemical spills, according to the report.

The state is also concerned about earthquake risks associated with fracking. Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey published a study showing that oil and gas development, specifically deep underground injection of wastewater from fracking operations, made Oklahoma more seismically active than California in 2014, posing a major risk to life and property.

The final environmental report on fracking doesn’t yet ban it in New York, however. State law requires the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to wait 10 days before issuing a legally-binding findings report, which is expected to implement the ban.

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