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Times Union view on Fracking

Editorial from the Times Union, June 17,2012

Safe? Then put fracking to a test

June 17, 2012 at 5:01 am by TU Editorial Board

Our opinion: If the state thinks fracking could be done safely, it should test its assumptions before deciding whether to open the floodgates.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is right that New York is still months away from deciding what its next step should be on natural gas drilling, so talking about that step might be premature.

But, really now. It was Mr. Cuomo’s own administration that coyly raised the topic last week — in a leak that the governor neither confirms nor denies is true. The tactic is hardly appropriate for such a vital public issue as high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking.

But here we are. Let’s talk about the idea that the governor is apparently too politically cautious to hang his own hat on just yet.

The idea, as reported by The New York Times, would be to issue an initial 50 fracking permits in five Southern Tier counties — Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga. They’d be issued only where the town in which the well would be drilled agrees.

The Southern Tier sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that is said to hold vast reserves of natural gas. The state is considering whether to allow fracking, a relatively new technique that involves drilling down and then horizontally, and pumping in a mix of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the rock and release trapped gas.

The industry maintains that the process is safe, but there have been incidents of drinking water contamination in several states where fracking has been allowed. While the general chemicals used in fracking are known, the industry considers the exact mixes proprietary. There has been talk of divulging the chemicals, but only after drilling is done.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is still reviewing tens of thousands of comments to its impact study and proposed drilling rules, and has officially made no decision.

If the DEC concludes that drilling can be done safely in New York — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is also looking at fracking, concurs — it would be reasonable to test that conclusion with a limited program, one that is entirely transparent.

There should be thorough air, water and soil tests before, during and after the test. There should be health assessments. The public should know what goes into the ground, what comes out of it, what stays below, and the full details of any mishaps. It should be able to see every permit and inspection report. Such information should not be shielded behind claims of trade secrets. This is an experiment of keen public interest.

Such a pilot program should be scaled to the ability of the DEC to monitor it and of local emergency services to respond to a spill, explosion or other disaster.  The full public costs, routine and otherwise, should tallied.

The industry should be on the hook for any damage it causes. New Yorkers well know how taxpayers, not polluters, tend to end up with the tab.

And drillers, the state and the public should all be clear that this is a test, not just some motion that New York is going through before automatically opening the gates to thousands of more wells. A thorough analysis may find that even tighter regulations and big fees or taxes are needed. It might find that fracking poses unacceptable risks.

It isn’t premature to have this discussion. There’s every indication that DEC will approve fracking in New York, and the federal government will bless it, too. It’s worth talking now about what the next step might be, even if Mr. Cuomo won’t join that discussion. You can be sure, though, that he’s listening.


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