Gas Rush: New York’s Heated Hydrofracking Debate


When gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, hundreds of thousands of treasure seekers flocked to California to cash in on the find. President James Polk declared a gold rush in 1849, a free-for-all with no regulation. Gold ultimately worth tens of billions by today’s standards was removed.

At first, miners only needed a shovel and a pan to scoop up pieces of gold from streams. But when that ran out, they moved on to hydraulic mining—using high-pressure hose water to blast ancient gravel beds and release more gold ore back into the waters.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 had permanent effects. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 to a bustling city of 36,000 in the course of six years. California became a state. Native Americans were attacked and pushed off their land. Hydraulic mining for gold had caused irreparable environmental destruction.

Land was destroyed and farmers were put out of business. Sediment from the mining operations clogged riverbeds and caused devastating flooding in nearby towns. The eroded landscape left behind at one mining site can still be seen today in Nevada.

In 2011, there is a new kind of gold rush upon us: hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas embedded deep underground in the Marcellus Shale, a 390 million-year-old rock formation under Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio—about the size of Greece—what is said to be enough natural gas to supply the East Coast for up to 50 years. Yet this isn’t a Western, nor the Wild West.

With an estimated value in the trillions, people from all over once again are looking to cash in on what is the biggest natural gas supply in the United States, using a similar process to hydraulic mining, but on a much grander high-volume scale with the added dangers of volatile organic compounds such as methane and the addition of hundreds of toxic chemicals. And, once again, there is little to no regulation of the process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, which involves firing millions of gallons of fresh water laced with approximately 900 toxic chemicals and sand thousands of feet down into underground rock to create fissures, hold them open and release natural gas deposits, has been put on ice in New York for years—until now.

The state had placed a moratorium on hydrofracking pending a study by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as to its potential risks, after residents in Pennsylvania—where hydrofracking has had the green light for years—say they can light their tap water on fire, that farm animals are losing their hair in clumps, and one woman’s water well blew up on New Year’s Day 2009, allegedly due to nearby fracking operations.

Last month, the DEC released the most recent stage of that study, a 1,095-page Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) outlining its recommendations on mitigating the environmental impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), along with attempting to address the more than 13,000 concerns regarding its ramifications on the environment and drinking water demanded by the public since the study’s first draft incarnation was released in 2009.

Although under the DEC’s recommendations, more than 80 percent of New York’s Marcellus Shale would be accessible to fracking, an executive order by former Gov. David Paterson dictated that no permits authorizing HVHF would be issued until the SGEIS is finalized, a process that next includes the release and integration of a community and socioeconomic impact study (reportedly due next month) and subsequent 60-day public comment period, followed by another review by the agency. The DEC expects the final SGEIS to be released sometime next year.

Additionally, the DEC last month announced the creation of a 12-member advisory panel of businesses, environmental leaders and Binghamton-area lawmakers “to guide regulations on allowing natural-gas drilling in New York.”

“Our job is to look at the potential environmental impacts associated with [fracking] and propose mitigation measures to address those impacts,” Emily DeSantis, assistant director of public information at the DEC, tells the Press. “With those strict permit conditions and rigorous mitigation efforts, we do believe that it can be done safely…. It’s being done in other states and we’ve looked at other states’ experiences and learned from them.”

“DEC’s number-one priority is to protect drinking water for all New Yorkers,” she adds.