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To Drill or Not to Drill?

by Ian Tuttle

Governor Cuomo refuses to answer the question

Andrew Cuomo finds himself between a rock and a hard place — because that rock is filled with several trillion cubic feet of lucrative natural gas. The first-term New York governor has made himself a target for both left and right by delaying (and delaying, and delaying) a decision on whether the natural-gas-extraction technique known as “fracking” will be allowed within the state’s borders.

Twenty-eight New York counties sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a natural-gas-bearing subterranean rock formation that also stretches across parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Geologists estimate that the entire region contains 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Given that a third of the Shale’s 55,000 square miles is in New York, the Empire State has access to a sizeable portion of that — certainly enough to supply much of its own in-state natural gas demand: a mere  1.1 trillion cubic feet each year. And, in addition to this embarrassment of riches, one thousand feet below the Marcellus Shale is the Utica Shale, which stretches even farther. How much natural gas is there is anyone’s guess, but it’s also a number in the trillions.

Pennsylvania, unlike its northeastern neighbor, opened its land early to Marcellus Shale fracking, and more than 2,000 hydrofractured wells have been dug there since 2002. The state’s economic growth as a consequence has been, to put it mildly, startling.

But none of that has made it across the border.

In 2008 Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, announced that New York was set to become a fracking-friendly state — pending a review by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) issued in September 2009, which recommended allowing fracking in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, met with loud opposition. After delaying a decision on the issue for a year, Paterson made what had been a de facto moratorium de jure, signing a seven-month moratorium on fracking in horizontally drilled wells and ordering further study. He vetoed a legislature-approved ban that would have included conventional, low-volume vertical wells, arguing that such wells had been in safe use for decades — and that such a ban would have shut down a profitable state industry and put its workers in the unemployment line.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, the Cuomo administration announced it would seek to lift the moratorium and allow fracking across 85 percent of New York’s Marcellus Shale (the DEC had reversed its conclusion on drilling in metropolitan watersheds). But within two months the decision was again up in the air, Cuomo adopting in an online chat with constituents what has since become his default position: “My point all along is to make the decision on hydrofracking based on the facts and on the science. This is not an issue to be decided by politics or emotion. DEC’s process is fair, intelligent and open, and I am letting the process proceed.”

That process seemed to have proceeded to a conclusion when, in February 2012, Cuomo promised that a decision was “a couple of months away.” But in June, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto announced, “No final decision has been made and no decision will be made until the scientific review is complete and we have all the facts.” A few months later Cuomo ordered the Department of Health to review the SGEIS’s health impacts.

Further “deadlines” have come and gone in 2013, and on May 1, New York Department of Health commissioner Nirav Shah said he had “no timetable” for a decision on whether the DOH would recommend that the governor approve fracking. And in case the situation does not look sufficiently hopeless, Cuomo has said his decision will rely on national studies as well — the conclusions of which are likely still years off.

Five years on, New Yorkers might have the impression that there is something more than “science” at play here.

And, in fact, what Cuomo has said is strictly a matter of “science and engineering” seems to be entirely political. The New York Post reports that Cuomo has expressed concern that he cannot implement fracking over the resistance of the state legislature, which may be able to pass a moratorium with a veto-proof majority. But Cuomo has also reportedly told associates that he plans to delay any decision about fracking until after 2014 — a year he will spend campaigning for reelection. And, of course, there is 2016 to worry about.

But Cuomo’s foot-dragging is costing his state.

In a study on the economic consequences of fracking in Pennsylvania published this May, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, found a direct correlation between the number of hydrofractured wells in Pennsylvania counties and those counties’ economic performance over the past several years. Between 2007 and 2011, per capita income in counties without a single well rose by 8 percent. In counties with one to 20 wells, income went up by 12 percent; in counties with 20 to 200 wells, by 14 percent; and in counties with more than 200 wells, by 19 percent. Over the same period, counties with no or only a few wells saw their number of jobs shrink by 3 percent annually; in counties with more than 200 wells, jobs increased by 7 percent. And those are not minimum-wage gigs: Gas companies in Pennsylvania have been offering $60,000 jobs driving water trucks.

Furchtgott-Roth argues that, because of the geological and topographical similarities between Pennsylvania and New York, the former’s success would likely be replicated in the latter. She calculates that had New York allowed its counties to fully exploit the Marcellus Shale, those counties would have experienced income-growth rates of up to 15 percent for that four-year period — or as much as 6 percentage points more than what they are experiencing.

She offers New York’s Chemung County as a hypothetical. Chemung County’s $36,000 per capita income, about average for the Marcellus Shale counties, will increase to $38,000 by 2015, a 7 percent increase. Drilling just 20 wells there would create a 10 percent increase in income; the average Chemung County resident would be pocketing an extra $1,200 by 2015. Drill at Pennsylvania’s 2007–11 average, 52.3 wells per county, and that rises to $1,500. Drill at the rate of Pennsylvania’s most prolific counties, 400 wells per county, and the average income in Chemung County would be well over $40,000.

And those results would likely hold true for all 28 of New York’s Marcellus Shale counties. Drilling at the Pennsylvania average in all of those counties, New York’s Marcellus Shale residents would be, collectively, $5.5 billion richer by mid-decade.

For New York’s Southern Tier, slow to recover in the wake of the Great Recession, that would be a huge boon. Elmira and Binghamton, both located in the Southern Tier, were the only two areas in the state that didn’t increase jobs from April 2012 to April 2013. Still, when asked if those numbers would affect his decision about fracking, Cuomo promised economics would not interfere: “The decision is made on the science.”

The “science” is as good an excuse as any Cuomo has available to avoid making a decision vehemently opposed by his progressive base. Forty-seven groups, chief among them Food & Water Watch, called on Cuomo to ban fracking statewide in July 2011. Those groups remain hard at work, joined by organizations such as New Yorkers Against Fracking and #NYFrackingScandal, which is seeking DEC and DOH “whistleblowers.”

Opponents of fracking have also received assistance from state courts. Early in May a New York appellate court upheld 4–0 a ruling permitting the town of Dryden’s fracking ban. The unanimous decision all but guarantees that the state’s highest court will not hear the case and that fracking will fall under the purview of “home rule,” effectively leaving the final decision on fracking to individual cities. According to FracTracker, the state already has in place 55 municipal fracking bans and 105 moratoria, and few gas companies will be willing to arrange their operations around a patchwork of bans or invest millions in land that could be revoked by a 3–2 town-council vote.

But the ruling is neither a total victory for fracking opponents nor a total loss for supporters. Advocates say home rule could provide an out for Cuomo: He can deflect at least some blame for permitting fracking if the ultimate decision rests with municipalities. On the other side, some environmentalists are not convinced that municipal bans would be sufficient. As Seth Gladstone of Food & Water Watch told the Albany Times-Union, “The kind of environmental degradation that occurs with fracking knows no boundaries on a map.” They want nothing less than the widest ban possible.

In March the state assembly moved closer to imposing a statewide one, passing a moratorium that would prohibit fracking until 2015; that bill, and another like it, are now under consideration in the state senate, where the Democratic conference has said it has more than enough votes to pass, after which it would go to Cuomo’s desk for a signature.

In the end, then, Cuomo may get his wish — which seems to be simply to delay any decision as long as possible, or until it is taken out of his hands. But the governor’s dilatory strategy has earned him few friends on either side, and if “hurry up and wait” ends up being successful politics, it will be at the expense of everyday New Yorkers.

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