The state of New York will reportedly lift what has essentially been a ban on fracking, according to a breaking news report from the New York Times.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office is said to have briefed a small number individuals on Thursday. According to the Times, the governor intends to open up New York to, “one of the fastest-growing — critics would say reckless — areas of the energy industry.”
Hyrdrofracking, or fracking as it is commonly known, is a controversial method of natural gas extraction in which large volumes of water, chemicals and sand are mixed and injected into the ground to access natural gas supplies. The practice is legal in Pennsylvania and several other states, but health and environmental concerns have kept it out of New York for the most part.
Now it appears that is about to change. There is still plenty to be learned about Cuomo’s plans for natural gas development in the Empire State, here are a few things that will likely have to be addressed.
1. No more side-by-side comparison for policies and conflicts of interest
New York's moratorium on horizontal drilling provided an easy way to compare environmental impacts of the practice to neighboring Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Shale formation lies beneath both states, but each state has taken a different approach to dealing with fracking. While New York has been cautious, Pennsylvania has been the focus of countless environmental and regulatory concerns. Ian Urbina of The New York Times has focused much of his attention this year on reports of Pennsylvania’s inability to properly treat radioactive material in fracking wastewater before it is dumped into waterways.
Pennsylvania has also come under fire for having a regulatory process that is largely controlled by companies involved in fracking. In March, Clean Water Action said that of the 30 members of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, more than a quarter came from companies who directly made donations to the governor’s campaign. During the most recent meeting of that commission, many Pennsylvanians encountered problems voicing their concerns to the commission. If New York plans to have a tight regulatory grip on fracking, its neighbor may not be the best example to follow.
2. What about wastewater?
Since fracking has become more prevalent in Pennsylvania and the West, environmentalists have focused on the possibility of aquifer contamination. While this concern is certainly legitimate, the more immediate concern has been the treatment of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater.
In the West, wastewater is typically stored in pits near frack sites. The lining of these pits and regulations stipulating what can be used for the lining has been a constant source of contention between regulators, the natural gas industry and citizens who live nearby. In places like Arkansas, wastewater has been stored in concrete containment wells. As more of these containment wells have been drilled, Arkansas has seen a sharp increase in earthquakes, something that has occurred in other places like Colorado and Texas where similar wells were drilled decades ago. Another method, used mainly in Pennsylvania, is to simply use treatment facilities to clean up the fracking wastewater before it heads into local rivers and streams. Urbina’s reports about this process have raised concerns about the state's ability to do this effectively. So what will New York do? State officials clearly have choices — though all of the aforementioned choices have led to some serious wastewater concerns.
3. Can fracking be economical if properly regulated?
The water contamination concerns have led many to believe that the practice must be regulated. Keeping wastewater from spilling, making sure casings are of the correct thickness and continuing to study all of the unknowns, will require a lot of time, effort and money.
So the ultimate question is, if a proper regulatory framework can be put in place, can natural gas be produced in an economical way? This will depend on two factors. The first is the process that New York puts in place if it decides to allow fracking. The second will be the sheer economics of supply and demand. The economic factor will be interesting to watch as already the natural gas industry’s claims about how much gas is available have been called into question by industry insiders. Given these unknowns, it will be interesting to learn if fracking makes economic sense in the long run. The devil will be in the details.