Broad Resistance Continues
New York Governor Cuomo Again Delays Decision for Fracking by Energy Monopolies
On February 12, New York Governor Cuomo again delayed making a decision on whether to allow high volume hydraulic fracturing — fracking — of natural gas by the energy monopolies pushing for the go ahead. The New York Department of Health, which is conducting a review of health impacts from the dangerous drilling asked for more time to complete its work. The review is supposed to inform the Department of Energy Conservation (DEC) which is finalizing regulations to permit fracking in the state. By delaying the decision, the DEC will miss a February 27 deadline and be required to resubmit an environmental impact statement and have another 45-day public comment period and public hearing.
There has been broad opposition to fracking across New York, including recent rallies of thousands in Albany and actions in many cities, such as Buffalo, Binghamton and New York City. At the end of the most recent DEC comment period, more than 204,000 comments demanding a ban on fracking were submitted. The comments and actions also demanded that the Health Department conduct a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA), given the broad dangers fracking poses to the public and its safe drinking water. An HIA has protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization and requires a comprehensive assessment, not just a review of existing studies — some of them funded by the fracking monopolies — that the Health Department is doing (see article below: Demand for Comprehensive Health Study).
Fracking is a dangerous drilling method used to extract natural gas from rock formations like the Marcellus Shale, which stretches across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Wherever the drilling has occurred, especially the more dangerous and damaging high volume horizontal fracking, water and land has been polluted and health problems have developed. This is evident across Pennsylvania, for example, where fracking is widely occurring. Various scientists, including biologists and geologists and families and farmers directly impacted have provided documentation, water samples, testimony and studies all showing the grave dangers to the human and natural environment posed by fracking.
In New York, the energy monopolies have already maneuvered to sign many leases with private land owners in anticipation of the needed permits from the government to proceed with drilling. The monopolies have already secured “Compulsory Integration,” which allows them to secure 60 percent of leases in a given area and then extract gas or oil from underneath the land of surrounding “uncontrolled” owners who refused to lease their land for drilling. The monopolies also want to open public lands to drilling, something President Obama supported in his State of the Union speech. These energy and military monopolies, such as Halliburton and Exxon, developed the technology for the fracking and are pushing in New York and nationwide for unlimited drilling rights.
New York State currently has a moratorium on drilling in place until the regulations from the DEC are complete. The delay by Cuomo is a reflection of the broad and growing movement demanding that the state Ban Fracking Now!
Instead, while Cuomo agreed to the delay, he is also considering allowing an “experimental” zone of horizontal fracking wells in New York’s southern tier area (along the Pennsylvania border). People in the area are denouncing this plan, saying they will not be a “sacrifice” zone for the energy monopolies.
In addition, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the DEC, said New York could issue gas-drilling permits fairly quickly if the Health Department study allayed concerns about risks to the water supply or other environmental hazards. The DEC's Division of Mineral Resources is the lead agency preparing the environmental impact statement on high-volume fracking. The director of that agency is Bradley J. Field, who worked for Getty Oil and Marathon Oil before taking his position with the DEC. He has publicly expressed his support for fracking while also saying climate change is not a real problem. Both act as the representatives of these private oil and gas interests, not those of the public, as their comments indicate.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly stated that “science” will determine the fate of high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state.
Science? How about voodoo science?
Scientists know that methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, up to 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the EPA has determined that emissions from natural gas production and transmission are the biggest source of methane pollution in the country.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Division of Mineral Resources is the lead agency preparing yet another environmental impact statement on high-volume fracking. And the director of that agency is Bradley J. Field, who does not believe that global warming, much less methane, is a threat—and he’s on record declaring this.
Field is a signer of the Global Warming Petition (petitionproject.org), which calls for the United States government to reject any proposed limits on greenhouse gases because “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.” On the contrary, petition advocates believe, “We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals . . . an unexpected and wonderful gift of the Industrial Revolution.”
Science? How about political science?
A petroleum engineer with a degree from Penn State, Field worked for Getty Oil and Marathon Oil before joining the DEC, and as the division director, serves as New York’s representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council. Based in Oklahoma City, both organizations are industry fronts that push the party line that fracking is benign, and Field follows it to the full. Time and again he has misrepresented facts and withheld crucial information from the state Legislature and the public in order to advance high-volume fracking, and he’s been assisted by very clever lobbyists who have been allowed to write rules and regulations that will govern their industry in New York.
In 2005, only five weeks after Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which contained the notorious “Halliburton loophole” that exempted hydraulic fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the New York State Legislature passed a so-called “Compulsory Integration” bill allowing the industry to extract gas or oil from underneath the land of “uncontrolled” owners who refused to lease their land for drilling. Quickly and unanimously voted out of the Senate and Assembly, this pickpocket ploy escaped scrutiny because it was a “departmental bill” sent to the Legislature with the support of Field’s division.
In truth, the bill was written by industry lobbyists. Referring to the industry’s lobbying arm, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, gas-lease attorney Christopher Denton in Elmira explained, “This is IOGA’s statute. They drafted it, introduced it, got a sponsor for it and pushed it through with no legislative hearings whatsoever.”
By 2008 the gas industry was after another piece of legislation that would quickly allow it to create outsized high-volume fracking production units, and Field began smoothing the way with a PowerPoint presentation designed to obscure the fact that high-volume fracking would be unlike anything the state had ever seen. It stressed that gas wells were “not new” in the state, but failed to mention that the process would be two orders of magnitude greater than anything New York had ever experienced.
The PowerPoint highlighted the phony industry line that in “all oil and gas states surveyed . . . not one instance of drinking water contamination in over one million frac [sic] jobs.” Field repeatedly said that New York’s 75,000 existing oil and gas wells had been drilled without incident. At a public meeting in Liberty, he casually dismissed a drilling accident in Brookfield, Madison County, as where “a bit got stuck and muddied up a bunch of water wells.”
In fact, the drilling accident completely destroyed some water wells and left others unusable for months. Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca firm that offers information on contaminated sites in the state, used the Freedom of Information Act to check the DEC’s own records, and he found “more than 270 incidents involving drill rig fires, explosions, homes evacuated due to gas drilling hazards, polluted water supply wells, gas drilling wastewater spills and various other oil/gas releases that had not been cleaned up.”
Field’s division also misled the public about the chemical contents of fracking fluid. It responded to an inquiry from one resident with the patently false statement that “Marcellus Shale fracing [sic] operations in NYS used only fresh water, sand, nitrogen and a diluted soapy solution. These frac fluids do not contain benzene, toluene or xylene.” In fact, when this e-mail was written, Marcellus operations in New York were already utilizing dozens of products containing dozens of poisonous chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylene.
In spite of some hastily organized opposition from upstate residents, the 2008 well-spacing bill sped through the Legislature, late at night on the last day of the session. Governor Paterson signed the bill, but realizing by then that high-volume, horizontal fracking was not business-as-usual, he simultaneously issued an executive order expressly prohibiting it until the DEC completed an environmental review of the process.
In fall 2009, the DEC released a draft of the review “prepared” by the Bureau of Oil and Gas in Field’s division. It was lambasted by scientists, health-care professionals, environmental organizations and the general public, who submitted almost 14,000 comments, mostly negative. New York City asserted that it “fails to analyze and address a range of potential risks to the environment,” a charge echoed by the U.S. EPA, which said the DEC did not “not sufficiently mitigate the potential environ-mental impact” of water withdrawals. Paterson ordered the DEC to back to the drawing board.
In September 2011, the DEC released the revised draft, this one “Edited and Coordinated by the Division of Mineral Resources.” Once again it was so riddled with distortions and omissions that the DEC found itself on the receiving end of more than 66,000 comments, the vast majority complaining that it ignored a growing body of scientific evidence that high-volume fracking would impact human health, contaminate the air and water supplies, and contribute to climate change. The United States Geological Survey determined that the revised draft failed to address key issues such as groundwater monitoring near well sites and the mapping of principal aquifers. The American Lung Association pointed to “serious deficiencies” in its treatment of air pollution associated with fracking.
The revised draft even omitted any reference to the groundbreaking findings by Cornell University’s Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. Their peer-reviewed paper (acsf.cornell.edu/2011Howarth-Methane) reported that fugitive emissions of methane during the extraction and transmission process of shale gas cause an even greater greenhouse gas impact than so-called “dirty coal." The Cornell scientists did not even get a phone call from the DEC.
It is bad enough for Field to deny the global warming threat, but it is another thing to thumb his nose at the state’s own Climate Action Plan. Overseen by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, Field’s boss, and 14 other state officials, it calls for an 80-percent reduction in 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, based on scientific studies and data interpretations “that analyze the local consequences of ever-rising greenhouse gas concentrations and our changing climate.” The plan already is going to cost New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars; by ignoring the spirit of the plan and going forward with fracking, Field will cost taxpayers far more than that in the attempt to offset the methane emissions. Is anyone watching the store?
End this fracking farce. Investigate the DEC and its Division of Mineral Resources now.
Four years of study and thousands of pages have been devoted to the study of fracking’s impact on New York’s environment, but no such analysis has been carried out for public health. A thorough investigation of fracking’s impact on human health is desperately needed. Still unanswered are three fundamental questions: Will fracking sicken and kill more New Yorkers than it employs? Will the sick and dying have any recourse—other than fleeing their homes and jobs—to protect themselves? And how much will that morbidity and mortality cost?
New Yorkers Against Fracking joins the call for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to determine what high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing would mean for the health of New Yorkers. Designed in accord with national and international health guidelines and inclusive of public participation, a comprehensive HIA is the widely accepted standard for prospective health studies. This HIA should include quantitative and economic analyses and must be led by an independent team of expert researchers untethered to gas industry funding or state agencies led by political appointees. An expedient, ad-hoc “review” that is not carried out with transparency and public input and that does not follow the established protocols of a comprehensive HIA is unacceptable. Any public health impact identified during a course of careful study as an unresolvable problem must, by the Governor’s own standards, serve to halt the entry of fracking in New York State.
Shale Gas: the New Leaded Gas?
As a framework of comparative understanding, here’s a story for our time. In 1922, General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline alleviated its tendency to burn explosively under high compression. Solving this problem meant that engines could be made bigger and cars faster. (Ethanol could have served this function, but it could not be patented and was therefore not profitable to the oil companies.) In 1923, when leaded gas hit the market, alarmed public health officials raised urgent concerns about the wisdom of broadcasting a brain poison into public air space. Meanwhile, refinery workers whose jobs involved formulating the lead additive began suffering hallucinations.
These reports reached the U.S. Surgeon General, who convened a meeting in 1925 to address the possible health impacts of lead dust exposure. The result was a moratorium that prohibited the sale of leaded gas until a thorough investigation could be completed.
Immediately, the lead industry helped fund a health study. It found . . .no problems. At least, none that could not be easily mitigated.
Medical professionals cried foul. The study did not take cumulative impacts into account and was not designed to reveal the long-term effects of exposures in early life. Nevertheless, the negative results were reassuring enough to get the moratorium lifted. Leaded gasoline went back on sale.
And stayed on sale for seventy years. As a result, 15.4 billion pounds of lead dust were released from the nation’s tailpipes into the air. By the time scientists were able to document, with proof, the tragic consequences — namely, serious risks for irreversible lead poisoning among those living near busy roadways — three generations of children had been damaged.
Leaded gasoline was finally banned for good in 1990. Even the tightest regulations were unable to control this menace to public health — and to workers. Lead paint is also now banned, and for the same reason. The consequence? Since the sun has set on both leaded gas and leaded paint, the incidence of mental retardation has fallen significantly and average IQ. has risen. Nevertheless and however outlawed, lead’s legacy remains: the soil in urban communities throughout the Northeast is still too full of this toxic metal to grow garden vegetables safely. Thus, the findings of a hasty study, conducted ninety years ago under the influence of a powerful, well-funded industry and accepted by public agencies cowed by that industry, explains why children in many Boston neighborhoods still cannot eat garden carrots or make mud pies in their own backyards without risking cognitive deficits.
With that story in mind, let us look at the decision now facing us here in New York State where we currently have a temporary, de facto moratorium on another industrial practice: unconventional shale gas extraction — fracking. The instrument of that moratorium is the supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), which, four years in the making, is still in draft form. Its first two iterations did not attempt to assess the impact of fracking on public health.
In September 2012, however — responding to a crescendo of concerns by scientists, medical health professionals, and members of the general public — the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that it would, after all, supplement the supplemental GEIS with a health review. Shortly after, the DEC denied a request from prominent environmental organizations — and, again, prior requests made by hundreds of New York medical professionals and organizations — to design that study as a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment and to give responsibility for its oversight to an independent team of researchers. Instead, Governor Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Martens have directed the Department of Health to lead the review, whose design has not yet been revealed but apparently will involve only ad-hoc protocols.
New Yorkers Against Fracking is greatly disappointed that, until now, Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Martens have dismissed the call for an independent entity to lead a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment. The public’s trust in the Cuomo administration’s objectivity and review has been broken given that the DEC gave access to and greatly accommodated with the gas industry in crafting the SGEIS prior to its public release, while leaving independent scientists, engineers, and clinicians largely outside the process of the environmental review. Additionally, the Department of Health has said throughout the review process that a Health Impact Assessment is not necessary. What has changed, and how can the public now have faith that the DOH is capable of conducting the thorough, objective, and patently necessary study that is now under consideration?
The Case Against Fracking
To the larger question of whether or not fracking should be allowed in the state of New York, New Yorkers Against Fracking (NYAF) has an unequivocal and steadfast answer: No. This no is not contingent on the results of a single health study, no matter what kind and no matter who carries it out. That is because NYAF opposition to fracking has roots in many places. In addition to our deeply felt concerns about public health, here are five other problems that animate many of us in the NYAF movement:
• Fracking destroys farmland and natural areas and threatens our economy. New York is the nation’s second biggest wine-producing state. It ranks third among states for overall milk production and is the third-largest producer of organic food in the United States. It also contains some of the largest, unbroken forest canopy in the Northeast. Drilling and fracking operations, which use our land as their factory floor, would industrialize our foodshed, threatening our state’s agricultural industry with water, air, and environmental contamination. And when practiced in forests, fracking requires massive clear-cutting in ways that decimate habitat for wildlife and bird populations, silt up streams for fish and amphibians, and diminish the land’s ability to filter rainwater and prevent flooding for us. This unacceptable environmental destruction simultaneously undermines the vitality of our state’s thriving tourism industry. It also threatens the foundation of our real estate industry as homes could lose their value and insurance companies refuse to cover properties near fracking operations.
• Fracking is undemocratic and irrational. It brings riches to a few and risks of ruin to many. It forces participation via compulsory integration and unchosen, avoidable exposures to fracking activities. It gives gas companies the right of priority over long-standing, often carefully planned land use. It has prompted rules that afford greater protections for those whose drinking water is drawn from certain aquifers (inhabitants of Syracuse and New York City) than those whose water does not (the rest of us). And it denies citizens without large land holdings a voice in the critical decisions that affect the quality of life for everyone in the community.
• Fracking destroys the climate. Fracking operations leak unburned methane — a potent heat trapping greenhouse gas that is 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame—at rates from one-third to two times greater than conventional drilling. Those leakage rates mean that natural gas obtained via fracking is either marginally worse than coal for the climate or marginally better. Either way, if fracking is used to span the transition to renewables, the world will be on a pathway that leads to an uptick in warming that significantly exceeds the two-degree increase that is considered the upper limit of safety. New Yorkers Against Fracking agrees with climatologist Ken Caldeira, who says that we cannot solve the climate crisis by “further entrenching a fossil fuel industry that depends on using the atmosphere as a waste dump… The goal is not to do something that is fractionally less bad than what we are doing now; the goal is to deploy energy systems that can actually solve the problem.”
• Fracking destroys water. Only one percent of all the water on Earth is available to us as fresh, liquid, drinkable water. When a single well is fracked, several million gallons of this precious water are removed from lakes, streams, or groundwater aquifers, deliberately poisoned with toxic chemicals, and entombed in deep geological strata, up to a mile or more below the water table. Once there, it is permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle—unless it comes back up as poisonous flowback or leaks into our groundwater aquifers.
• Unenforced regulations are meaningless. New research from Toxics Targeting and the Associated Press clearly shows that the DEC has been unable to remediate — or even locate — derelict, abandoned vertical gas wells and their associated waste pits in western New York. Regulatory neglect extends to ongoing contamination of drinking water supplies. In short, the DEC has failed to regulate this process for decades, and we can expect nothing but more of the same in the future. Some insist that the budget-slashed, short-staffed DEC can grow to meet the need, but we agree with the editorial board of the Albany Times Union: “Our taxpayers will not pay for the privilege of letting someone else make money.”
The Case for a Comprehensive Health Impact Assessment
A thorough investigation of fracking’s impact on human health is desperately needed—and we applaud the Cuomo administration for acknowledging this need. Four years of study and four thousand SGEIS pages have still not answered the three most fundamental questions about hydraulic fracturing in New York State: Will fracking sicken and kill more New Yorkers than it employs? Will the sick and dying have any recourse—other than fleeing their homes and jobs—to protect themselves? And what is the economic cost of that morbidity and mortality?
Case studies and individual reports from other states provide credible evidence of public health risks in communities located near drilling and fracking operations. Although these risks have been acknowledged, no comprehensive assessment has yet been conducted. How many illnesses and deaths are we willing to ignore? Many of the areas currently being drilled are not as densely settled as New York, which is the nation’s third most populous state. Small increases in mortality and disease rates in a state with 19.5 million inhabitants would have much more wide-spread consequences and carry much bigger costs than equivalent effects in, for example, western Wyoming or eastern Utah. Must we see these consequences played out before we take action?
New Yorkers Against Fracking is convinced that a thorough, well-designed health study, conducted in good faith and inclusive of long-term, cumulative impacts, will reveal many problems. They will be expensive problems, and not all of them will be capable of mitigation through technological fixes. This is an easy prediction to make. Shale gas extraction via horizontal hydraulic fracking is an inherently dangerous activity. Fracking turns solid bedrock into broken shards whose cracks become potential pathways for contamination, some of it radioactive. Broken shale is not reparable by any known technology. Fracking relies upon and releases from the earth large amounts of greenhouse gases and inherently toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, while also industrializing the natural and built environments of human communities.
Risks to public health from fracking arise from every stage of the gas extraction process — from the clearing of land for well pads to the disposal of toxic wastewater to the radon accompanying the gas that travels through pipelines to people’s homes — and may affect not only disease rates but also the fundamental conditions for human health. For example, with the onset of drilling and fracking operations, a community may experience dramatic increases in noise pollution, light at night, crime, and truck traffic, along with decreases in the availability of locally grown food, affordable housing, and recreational green space for exercise. All of these changes have health consequences. Traffic-related noise pollution alone, for example, demonstrably raises the risk of heart attack and high blood pressure and cognitive deficits in children. Those who are harmed by these activities are rarely those who have chosen to pursue them and who have received any benefit.
The execution of a well-designed, expansive study does not mean simply reviewing the published literature that already exists and zeroing out uncertainties as “no effect” defaults. It means aggressively seeking out an array of data sources and bringing a multi-disciplinary approach to their analysis.
Happily, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is designed to do just that.
Four hallmark features of a comprehensive HIA make it suited to our current situation in New York: First, its sole purpose is to identify the effects of a proposed activity — in this case, fracking — on the health of a given population and to describe the distribution of those effects within the population. Second, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment is prospective: it is done in advance of any decision to approve or prohibit the proposed activity. Third, a comprehensive health impact assessment is wide-ranging: it must give special consideration to vulnerable sub-populations (for example, pregnant women, infants, children, and the elderly), and it must analyze not only the causes of illness but also the conditions that affect health. (As identified by the National Academies of Science, these conditions include personal behaviors as well as social and economic factors, the built environment, and the physical environment.) Fourth, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment is participatory: throughout the process, it includes elements of public participation in the form of hearings, public reviews, meetings, and stakeholder consultations. Concerns suggested by members of potentially affected communities are included in the scope of the study.
In essence, a comprehensive HIA is a formal set of protocols to be used to forecast, and thus avoid, harm. Its protocols were developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization (among others), and they are sanctioned by the National Research Council. A comprehensive HIA is the accepted approach for understanding the health effects of a proposed activity.
The operative word here is comprehensive. This adjective has specific meaning in the world of HIAs. There are several types of HIAs — including the “desktop HIA”— which is little more than a review of the available literature and that requires only a few weeks to complete. Only a comprehensive HIA requires public participation and a quantitative analysis. Quantitative analysis is the difference between saying “lowered air quality may increase slightly the risk of pediatric asthma” and saying “increasing truck traffic on rural roadways by __ percent will increase the background level of ozone in neighboring communities by __ percent and is thus predicted to increase the rate of asthma in New York’s rural children by __ percent, leading to __ number of additional children diagnosed with asthma before age five and __ additional pediatric emergency room visits per year.”
New Yorkers Against Fracking supports the call for a comprehensive HIA as strictly defined by our national and international health agencies. A comprehensive HIA is the only tool of public health inquiry into the effects of fracking that we will accept. New Yorkers Against Fracking will interpret any ad-hoc approach or claim of HIA equivalency as a sign of political expediency and a compromised process. Given the large-scale land use decisions being entertained and the enormous health, economic and environmental implications of our choices, why would we consider using anything but the best possible tool to protect our communities? […]