A Checkup for Natural Gas
Just as New York State seemed ready to allow drilling upstate to extract a rich supply of natural gas, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a delay. Officials will now take another look at the potential health risks of hydraulic fracturing — a technique for extracting natural gas from deep shale formations, like the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath the states’s southern tier. Such caution makes sense, especially when approval of full-scale drilling could mean tens of thousands of gas rigs dotting the landscape over the next 30 years.
Industry representatives and some landowners see this latest review as, at best, a delay and, at worst, a capitulation by a politically astute governor to environmentalists and a growing roster of celebrity opponents. Mr. Cuomo insisted Tuesday that “there is no step back” from his promise to allow drilling in selected areas of the state — areas outside the New York City and Syracuse watersheds — if it can be done safely. He said another examination of potential health risks could help the state “withstand a legal challenge” if drilling permits are finally issued.
Given the ferocity of the debate about hydraulic fracturing, any decision will almost certainly land in the courts. Reviewing the growing literature on the health effects of hydraulic fracturing is a sound idea. But this new study has to be more than a legal tactic, more than a rubber-stamping of what’s already there. As the environmental commissioner, Joseph Martens, said when he announced the study last month, the public must have “trust in the integrity” of the review.
To inspire such trust, the Cuomo administration has asked New York’s health commissioner, Nirav Shah, a respected internist and researcher, to see whether the state’s earlier environmental review does the job — whether, that is, sufficient analysis has been done to assess hydraulic fracturing’s impact on air, water and public health.
Can gas be extracted without risk to local water supplies? Can the millions of gallons of chemically laced wastewater discharged by every well be recycled or safely stored on the surface? Can methane, a potent greenhouse gas, be kept from the air? Are the most fragile people — children, the elderly, the ill — unacceptably at risk from the industrial pollution caused by trucks and other heavy machinery?
Hydraulic fracturing has added substantially to the country’s energy supply, and a lot of drilling appears to have occurred without incident. But there have been enough alarming reports of water and air pollution to justify further study. Dr. Shah is expected to ask “the most qualified outside experts” to advise him but not to make the final decision. This issue will stop at the governor’s desk, and the best course for Mr. Cuomo and the rest of New York is to take the time to do it right.