Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration Wednesday announced that New York State will ban the controversial natural gas drilling technique hydraulic fracturing, a decision that ends a long and contentious debate that pitted grass roots environmental organizations against powerful energy companies.
The long-awaited decision was announced during Cuomo’s cabinet meeting in Albany, and comes after the New York State Department of Health completed its public health review of the technique. The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could pose a health risk, and that science and research has not yet fully answered how those risks could be adequately mitigated.
“I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered,” Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health, said in a statement. “I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
Environmentalists have called on Cuomo to ban fracking essentially since he entered office in 2011, warning that it could pollute the water supply and cause underground contamination. A fracking moratorium has been in place since 2008.
One prominent Long Island environmental advocate was ecstatic.
“This is one of the biggest victories for the public in New York State history,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “At this point we are delighted the governor has banned fracking, we are opening champagne and a four-year campaign has come to end.”
“The administration literally dissected the risk and what I mean by that is they adequately assessed that there were everything from birth defects to air quality to drinking water and economic and adverse economic impacts,” she added. “So it wasn’t just a decision on environment and public health reasons, it included the failing economics of fracking.”
Fracking involves shooting a mysterious cocktail of chemicals and water deep into the subterranean deposits of ancient shale to release natural gas.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s own review found that the “risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits,” commissioner Joe Martens said in a statement.
Pro-fracking groups have said a ban would hurt upstate New York’s economy, which has suffered since the Great Recession.
Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), co-leader of the State Senate, criticized the decision and the health department’s review, which he described as not especially revelatory. Politics, he said, trumped science in this case.
“This Executive decision extinguishes the hope that existed for many hardworking Southern Tier families, and is a huge missed opportunity for Upstate New York,” Skelos said in a statement. “The answer to rural poverty is not government hand outs; it’s government getting out of the way and allowing the private sector to create real and permanent high-paying jobs.”
But environmental groups inside New York State and around the country would disagree. They expressed their opposition to fracking with rallies in Albany, as well as at Cuomo’s public appearances, where they urged him to ban the technique.
“If you have the facts on your side and you have strong organization and strong support of regular people throughout the state you can beat the oil and gas industry,” said Seth Gladstone, field communications director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch.
“I’m thrilled,” Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s most recent Democratic primary challenger, told the Press. “It’s a great day for all of New York. I’m proud to be in a state where we reject the toxic future promised by fracking and deeply impressed by all the work of New York’s hidden activists who led to this result.”
During her campaign, Teachout held rallies protesting fracking, and openly criticized Cuomo for not taking an active stance against it.
While Long Island would not have been subject to the drilling, both counties passed laws that ban fracking wastewater from being sent to local sewage treatment plants.
The fracking ban won’t be official until early next year, when the DEC releases its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. The state health department’s public health review will be included in that statement.
-With Jaime Franchi