Thanks to an announcement from the state Department of Health today, New Yorkers will miss out on a multi-billion-dollar industry that has made other states rich.
The decision, a ban on fracking, has little to do with sound science and much more to do with the political cowardice of New York’s leaders, the politicization of state agencies, and the political activism of radical environmentalists.
The story begins about six years ago, when Governor David Paterson decided to refer a politically controversial decision about fracking to state agencies, ordering a study while instituting a de facto fracking ban. His successor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, also washed his hands of the hard call; at today’s news conference, Cuomo said his commissioners had made the decision, adding, “I don’t think I even have a role here.”
The Department of Health justified its decision to ban fracking with a long-anticipated report on the practice’s public-health effects, but there’s reason to question the objectivity of this study.
In fact, the first draft of the environmental-conservation report inconveniently concluded that New York should allow fracking to proceed — so Governor Paterson demanded a do-over. Under intense environmental lobbying, and after years of delay, the new report offers a more palatable conclusion for a Democratic governor: that the risk to public health is just too great to allow fracking in New York.
Even so, the report hardly impresses.
As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of [fracking] on public health is unlikely to ever be attained.
There are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with [fracking], the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could aversely effect public health.
It is apparent that the science surrounding [fracking] activity is limited, only just beginning to emerge, and largely suggests only hypotheses about potential public health impacts that need further evaluation.
While hedging isn’t uncommon to such studies, it makes clear that the decision to ban fracking — a decision that has demonstrable and significant economic repercussions for the state of New York — is based on unauthoritative, inconclusive, non-definitive, and absent science.
The purported health risks the Department of Health does note are also rather thin. For starters, the study seems to assume that prosperity, in and of itself, poses a public-health risk.
It warns of “community impacts associated with boom-town economic effects such as increased vehicle traffic, road damage, noise, odor complaints, increased demand for housing and medical care, and stress.” Later, it cautions about “disproportionate increases in social problems, particularly in small isolated rural communities where local governments tend to be unprepared for rapid changes.”
Is any industry that comes to small towns, revitalizes waning economies, and creates growth a health hazard? It’s not about to happen, but imagine if the wind-power industry saw growth on a similar scale. Would the New York Department of Health be worried enough about “boom-town economic effects” and noise complaints to justify a turbine ban?
The study also makes much of how mishaps — not the practice itself — might affect public health. For example, it frets about water and soil contamination from “faulty well construction” and “surface spills” and “inadequate wastewater treatment.”
Sure, accidents are possible. But the energy extraction is already subject to extensive regulation, and the threat of lawsuits resulting from negligence or error provide ample incentive for companies to act with care, as they do in any other industry. Meanwhile, fracking technology has made leaps of progress as the energy sector has boomed, and the process is steadily becoming safer.
The study also cautions of “climate change impacts due to methane and other volatile organic chemical releases to the atmosphere.” But earlier this year, the most comprehensive study of its kind found the EPA had grossly overestimated the amount of methane leaked at fracking sites, also concluding that new technology resulted in “99 percent of the potential [methane] emissions [being] captured or controlled.”
The Department of Health fails to duly consider fracking’s positive effects on climate change. Fracking produces natural gas, which is vastly less carbon-intensive than the fuel it typically replaces, coal. More natural-gas production and lower prices have brought U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years, a link that even the federal government’s Energy Information Administration acknowledges.
For New York, the use of natural gas has already yielded environmental results. More than half of all homes in the state rely on natural gas for heat, making it the state’s largest energy source. Even New York City’s far-left mayor, Bill de Blasio, has noted that “since 2005, New Yorkers have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent, largely through a transition to natural gas for electricity generation.”
Even some of the more worrisome-sounding issues raised by the Department of Health look less authoritative upon deeper examination. For instance, the report cites a “peer-reviewed study and one university report [that] have presented data indicating statistical associations between some birth outcomes (low birth weight and some congenital defects) and residential proximity of the mother to well pads during pregnancy.”
Sounds scary — but the study that these findings derive from “air pollution or stress from localized economic activity,” not groundwater contamination from fracking. Meanwhile, other report referenced, conducted by the University of Colorado, even elicited criticism from the state’s chief medical officer, who cautioned that “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
The Department of Health’s conclusion is based more on overwrought alarmism than it is careful consideration, and it’s New Yorkers in need of economic opportunity who are going to bear the costs.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.