Moratorium on Hydro-fracking? Don’t Pop the Champagne Cork Yet.

On August 4th, New Yorkers received a rare piece of good news from their elected representatives in Albany. The State Senate had apparently passed a moratorium on the use of hydraulic-fracturing by energy companies drilling for natural gas in Upstate New York. “Hydro-fracking,” or “fracking,” as the method is often known, involves digging a deep underground well and then injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals under high pressure in order fracture the rock shale that surrounds hard -to-reach gas deposits.

While fracking has been in use in New York and elsewhere for decades, it became a serious environmental concern after 2005 when the Bush administration pushed through a new Energy Policy Act. This law, written for the most part by Dick Cheney, exempted hydro-fracking from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, which had previously exercised oversight of the practice  since passage of Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. After being granted the exemption, gas companies in New York began to engage in an even more environmentally risky version of fracking called “horizontal fracking.” This process involves drilling downward in a region outside of a designated watershed zone (where drilling is banned),  and then blasting a chemical cocktail laterally into neighboring gas deposits beneath the watershed. This practice gives the erroneous impression that the watershed left unmolested because there is no surface evidence that the extraction is occurring.

Companies have also remained tight-lipped about the exact composition of the chemicals they use in the process, or to cooperate with research that would study their impact on New York City’s water, which is supplied by aquifers that pass through the same upstate regions in which the drilling occurs. Anecdotal evidence from other parts of the country where “fracking” occurs suggests that continued hydro-fracking left unregulated will indeed poison New York City’s famously clean and unfiltered water.

The problem with the “good news” about the moratorium is that the news is not as good as most people think, and has the potential to lull opponents of fracking into complacency while the oil and gas lobby plots its next move. Two important things to remember:

First is the fact that the moratorium has only passed the State Senate. It is not scheduled to go before the Assembly until later this month and its support there is unclear. In addition, the bill would need to be signed by a current governor whose public statements on hydro-fracking have been inconsistent. More than a few state leaders have signaled their opposition to the moratorium stating that it would be damaging to the upstate region’s flagging economy.

Secondly, the proposed moratorium would only apply to new permits for horizontal-type drilling. Straight vertical drilling outside of the watershed (but near it) would still be issued and, in fact, this type of drilling is occurring at this moment. Perhaps most significantly, the moratorium is temporary. It expires on May 15th 2011 when the Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to have completed an impact study and to issue new regulations on horizontal-type hydro-fracking, but not necessarily to ban it. Exactly what those new regulations will include is anyone’s guess.

There is no such thing as safe hydro-fracking. At the very least, the DOC should regulate hydro-fracking with the same stringency the EPA had before 2005, including a permanent ban on horizontal-type fracking. Ideally, it will ban the practice for all types of wells. In the meantime, our very own United States Senator Charles Schumer has introduced legislation known as the FRAC Act that would return fracking to federal regulation and require companies to reveal the chemicals they are using. He should be strongly supported in this effort.

Until it becomes law, keep the champagne in the locker room.

Stephen is the Chair of MYD’s Environmental Committee. Check out the Committee page here and email him at green [at] goMYD [dot] com if you want to join.