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Can Fracking Ever Be Done Safely?

Assurances that fracking can be done safely through regulation should be seen as mass sedatives, not real protection.

Photo Credit: Tom Grundy/


Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to have hit the pause button on once-imminent plans to frack New York. This is a turnaround from June, when someone in his administration leaked to the New York Times a tentative plan to begin drilling in New York’s Southern Tier. In place of the predicted post-Labor Day announcement, the governor hinted in a recent radio interview that he’s in no hurry to launch into the controversial practice. Cuomo “isn’t going to pressure the state agency into making the decision by a certain date, such as the upcoming Election Day or by the end of the year,” reported the Ithaca Journal

Cuomo, a popular governor, may be reluctant to sacrifice his 73-percent approval rating to a controversial practice. And why should he? Given its wide-ranging economic downsides, fracking is no economic boon for the majority of taxpayers and businesses. The main rationale for it may well be to help overextended gas and oil companies avoid taking a loss.

"Unfortunately, shale economics have relied heavily on flipping land for profit rather than actual drilling results,” explains financial analyst Deborah Rogers. “That is why it is paramount [for gas companies] to gain access to drilling on lands they have already leased. Typically they lease, drill a few wells and then proclaim the field 'proved up' which then enables them to flip it for multiples of the original lease costs."

Communities are then left holding the bag from impacts to air and water quality, and well as human health that may result from fracking. While industry is happy to frack with abandon (and without regulation), some proponents of fracking, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, claim that if it can be done safely, it should be allowed. So, what would constitute real safety and is it possible that it could be enforced in a state like New York?

The Safety Trifecta

New York has always represented the best opportunity for pushback to the gas and oil industry. Unlike Wyoming or other first-to-frack regions where the dispersed population naively leased land without anticipating the now well-documented economic, health, environmental, and political downsides, New York is a well-informed, well-organized, vocal, and media savvy population. The state is fertile ground for mounting mobilization, exposing an industry that prefers to spend millions on PR, fines, lobbyists, and political contributions rather than allow itself to be regulated. There are three basic reasons why the industry strategy has misfired in New York: water, values and Pennsylvania.

In contrast to the underpopulated or desert regions where fracking first launched, folks in the population-dense East don’t want their policy makers to dismiss, guess or take the word of vested industries about the risks to the health, and water and food supplies of downstream mass urban populations. And for policy makers, that translates into the need for either an outright ban or complete fulfillment of what I call the Safety Trifecta:

  1. Precautionary assessments of all impacts.
  2. Strong regulations.
  3. Committed enforcement.

So far, New York is lacking on all three counts.

A Regulation-Resistant Industry

At the outset, fracking was deregulated by the Halliburton Loophole (embedded in the Bush-signed 2005 Energy Bill). That gave the gas industry a running start to amass land in the arid West and Southwest, where the prevailing “don’t tread on me” ethos prized lone ranger-style independence over looking out for one’s neighbors  But then fracking came East into a new political context.

When one man’s right to drill translated into community-wide water contamination, blue state residents didn’t retreat. They paid close attention. The fracking-induced community destruction, high-handed politics and lack of industry regulation and accountability in Pennsylvania has given New Yorkers a complete view of the so-called regulation of fracking. 

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