Fracking Update: The Future Of New York’s Water

Last Friday, the Obama administration announced a new ordinance stating that oil and gas companies will have to disclose the chemicals they use when hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—on public lands. While this seems like a big victory for environmental groups concerned with water supply contamination, the announcement came with a sobering qualifier—drilling companies will only have to disclose the chemical names after they’ve drilled.

Environmental groups have been campaigning furiously for years against large natural gas companies that are eyeing land in upstate New York to gain access to the Marcellus Shale, a huge reserve of natural gas lying thousands of feet under New York and other areas of the East Coast. 

Hydraulic fracturing involves shooting high-pressure streams of water, sand, and toxic chemicals into the ground to get at natural gas pockets 8,000 feet below the surface. But this mixture can seep into and contaminate the groundwater, potentially causing huge problems for the local water supply.

This particular shale reserve is the focus of both gas companies and activists, as controversy swirls around the legality of drilling in New York. Many activists look to an ongoing dispute with Pennsylvania landowners, which has been scrutinized in depth by The New York Times, whose land has been notoriously usurped by gas company “landmen.” These property-seeking gas company representatives often take advantage of small landowners, withholding information and tying landowners to unfairly binding contracts that often lead to pollution and contamination of their property.

Yet activist groups in New York are hoping to stave off the issues now facing Pennsylvania landowners. Many small groups have pushed back against what they see is aggression from gas companies—especially after reports that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would end the state’s ban on the drilling technique.

“Governor Cuomo initially made a comment that seemed to imply that fracking is going to be approved on a state government level, similar to Pennsylvania,” said Frankie F., lead researcher for NoFracking.com, an activism and research organization. “It was made at a time when there was not widespread awareness of the problems related to fracking in New York State.”

Frankie and other anti-fracking organizations have faith that small environmental groups will have a substantial effect on drilling legislation and hydraulic fracturing regulations.

“I think that small organizations have been playing crucial roles in this for a long time, most substantially in a grassroots way,” Frankie said. “It’s small groups doing whatever they can to increase the conversation in their local communities.”

The anti-fracking group’s fears may not be off the mark, too. We’ve covered in depth the battle in Dryden, a small town in New York, whose town board ruled last year against a drilling company that was seeking resident’s land for access to gas reserves underneath it. The ruling prohibited drilling for natural gas in the area last August, which was seen as a huge victory for environmentalists and the New York watershed. The law runs contrary to a state regulation that would permit drilling for oil and gas reserves in New York. But according to a Bush/Cheney energy bill in 2005 referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, energy companies aren’t bound to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking.

The chemical disclosure problem has been at the forefront of residents’ and activists’ complaints against drilling companies. Many reputable sources, most notably Propublica, have reported several dangerous chemicals involved in the hydraulic fracturing process, including diesel, methanol (found in antifreeze), sodium hydroxide (lye), and Naphthalene (a toxic chemical found in mothballs).

Lauren Singer, a politics and environmental studies rising senior who was president of Oxfam this year, cautioned against the perils of fracking in New York state.

“Many studies show that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water and the impacts of this happening in New York State would be catastrophic,” Singer said.

When asked for comment, the biggest gas companies with a stake in New York land refused to weigh in. But National Fuel, one of the biggest stakeholders in the Marcellus Shale gas reserve, has said on their website that while natural gas is a fossil fuel, it is environmentally safer and less harmful than sources derived from coal or oil. “Of the major sources of energy in the United States, natural gas is the cleanest, most efficient, cost effective, and abundant, producing less pollution and fewer greenhouse gasses than its counterparts,” National Fuel said on its site.

And others have contended that natural gas drilling in New York State could create jobs and stimulate a lagging economy. Yet environmental groups warn that the jobs created aren’t worth the harm to the ecosystem and groundwater that hydrofracking poses.

“In terms of risks to New York City, it’s all about the water supply,” said Frankie of NoFracking.com. “New York City has one of the oldest unfiltered drinking water supplies, and this technique would allow the New York aquifers to contaminate the city’s water supply.”

Singer agreed, stressing the need for powerful lawmaking in moving forward.

“I believe that it is time for our legislators to realize the potential of renewable energy sources and work towards creating a clean energy future before we destroy the resource that none of us can live without–water.”

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