The Biggest State To Ban Fracking

New York’s ban was announced last week:

At a cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, acting state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker released the results of a years-long study into the public health implications of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Zucker said the benefits of tapping natural gas deposits in western New York did not outweigh the potential risk to public health.

Jay Michaelson reads through that report:

[T]he shortest summary of A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development (PDF) is: We don’t know if it’s safe or not.

As the title implies, the New York report is not a study, but a review of existing studies—dozens of them, from around the country—as well as conversations with officials in other states who are also studying the issue. In addition to the tens of detailed studies, the report identifies 13 comprehensive, systematic ones that might settle the matter once and for all. “These major study initiatives may eventually reduce uncertainties regarding health impacts of HVHF [fracking] and could contribute to a much more complete knowledge base for managing HVHF risks,” the report says. “However, it will be years before most of these major initiatives are completed”

Sigh. Even the most eagerly anticipated study, the EPA’s analysis of fracking’s potential effects on drinking water, begun in 2011, is not due to be complete until 2016.

Chris Mooney compares New York’s actions to those of Maryland, which recently approved fracking. He concludes that the biggest difference “may be that unlike Maryland’s research, the New York health report pretty clearly hews to an approach known as the ‘precautionary principle‘”:

It is important to recognize that the precautionary principle is not a purely scientific position — nor is it an anti-scientific one. Rather, it represents a risk-aversive orientation towards scientific uncertainty — a conscious decision that unknown risks are too serious to ignore.

That’s why criticisms of New York’s move on “scientific grounds” don’t make much sense. For instance, one blog post at the pro-fracking site Energy in Depth sought to individually critique some of the health-related studies that fed into the New York report. But that’s kind of missing the point: These studies don’t need to be the unassailable “truth” in order for New York to justify its precautionary position. Rather, the state simply needs to be able to point to a body of evidence that, on the whole, raises concern.

Ronald Bailey rejects this reasoning:

A simpler formulation of the precautionary principle is: Never do anything for the first time. Basically, ignorance can be used as an excuse to stop anything of which one disapproves.

Bloomberg View’s editors also argue that “answer isn’t to ban fracking”:

It’s to regulate it more carefully and intelligently. Stronger casing requirements for wells, for example, can prevent wastewater from escaping into the ground, and there must be strict rules about how to dispose of the wastewater that reaches the surface. Companies that don’t follow the rules should face meaningful fines.

These principles haven’t always been applied in other states that allow fracking, which is why the practice has a mixed reputation. If Cuomo believes that current best practices in other states aren’t sufficient to protect public health, he would do more good by issuing rules that are — and then challenging drillers to meet them.

Sean Collins points out that that the “areas of New York with the most potential for fracking, such as those in the ‘southern tier’, are also among the most economically depressed regions in the entire United States”:

The question of moving forward with fracking, as with other forms of industrial development, is not simply a technical, scientific one. People’s livelihoods and prosperity are at stake, and the science doesn’t tell us what value we should place on lifting people out of poverty. The decision to ban fracking in upstate New York is based on flimsy ‘it’s possible something bad could happen’ grounds, at a time when such drilling is being deployed successfully and safely elsewhere. The decision was made in the context of grinding poverty and over the heads of the local people who want it.

But Philip Bump found that even regions which might benefit economically from fracking were divided:

The Finger Lakes region, a bit further north, depends heavily on tourism. In 2012, I spoke with the Chamber of Commerce in Penn Yan, N.Y., at the tip of Keuka Lake, to gauge how the business community felt about the possibility of fracking. A representative said they were split: businesses that depended on tourism were worried about pollution in the lake, other businesses supported the possibility of job growth (which is very real; three cities in North Dakota were among the fastest-growing in the country in 2013, thanks to the boom in the Bakken shale formation in that state).

That was 2012. Over the past year, unemployment rates in the state have fallen, just as they have broadly across the country. Where the Finger Lakes were peppered with pro- and anti-fracking signs two years ago, this year, the signs dealt more often with Cuomo’s also-contentious gun control bill. While a lot of people upstate are still out of work, the urgency has faded a bit.