New York made history on December 17th, 2014 as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would ban hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” becoming the first state with significant deposits of oil or natural gas to do so. The decision to ban hydraulic fracturing came after the release of a new report by the New York Department of Health (DOH) which states there is not enough evidence to prove hydraulic fracturing is safe.
Cuomo’s decision makes him the first major Democratic official in the country to ban hydraulic fracturing, a stark contrast to other high-profile Democrats, including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who have supported hydraulic fracturing with proper regulatory oversight.
According to Newsday on Dec. 21, the questionable nature of the studies used to justify the fracking ban has fueled speculation Cuomo is cozying up to anti-fracking and environmental activists in preparation for a potential presidential run in 2016.
‘I Am Not a Scientist’
The various health studies used by DOH to support its position have been controversial and largely discredited within the scientific community and by top health officials in other states.
Cuomo immediately sought to distance himself from his decision. In a statement to the press, Cuomo exclaimed, “I am not a scientist. I’m not an environmental expert. I’m not a health expert. I’m a lawyer. I’m not a doctor. I’m not an environmentalist. I’m not a scientist. So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”
However, Capital New York reported on Jan. 5 the “qualified experts” Cuomo relied on to produce the report found no proof hydraulic fracturing causes health effects. Howard Zucker, the acting state health commissioner, has stated, “We don’t have the evidence to prove or disprove the health effects, but the cumulative concerns of what I’ve read gives me reason to pause.”
Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY) dismissed the DOH findings, saying Cuomo “continues to hide behind Albany bureaucrats and controversial scientific studies,” according to Politico.
Bans ‘Wrong Way to Go’
Also dismissive of fracking bans–including the ban enacted in New York—was U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, a former petroleum geologist and the chief custodian of federal lands in the United States.
In an exclusive interview with KQED in Northern California, Jewell, stated of local fracking bans, “I would say that is the wrong way to go.” She added, “There is a lot of misinformation about fracking. I think that localized efforts or statewide efforts in many cases don’t understand the science behind it, and I think there needs to be more science.”
One of the main studies used to justify the ban in New York was a widely discredited study by the Colorado School of Public Health. The study, which attempted to discover a link between hydraulic fracturing and an increased frequency of birth defects in pregnant mothers in Colorado, never considered outside factors that may have resulted in birth defects, such as drinking or smoking, the Washington Examiner reported.
The study was so problematic, Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said, “a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned,” in a public statement.
Environmental groups cheered Cuomo’s decision, with Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group saying, “I think this decision could make this governor a national environmental hero,” said in Newsday.
For Environment, or Environmentalists?
Although the fracking ban represents a win for environmentalists, the environment could suffer as a result of the decision.
Dr. Josh Bloom, director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, said “Most pollution from burning any type of fuel is caused by incomplete combustion, which leads to byproducts, such as gasoline or diesel fumes, smoke, or soot. The size—molecular weight—of the molecules of hydrocarbon fuel correlates well with the degree of incomplete combustion; lower molecular[-weight] fuels burn more efficiently than higher. Fuels with high molecular weights tend to be solids and viscous oils, while those with lower molecular weights are liquids, such as gasoline. The smallest hydrocarbons are volatile liquids—butane, for example—or gases at atmospheric pressure.
“Methane—the principal component of natural gas—is the smallest possible molecule, having a molecular weight of only 16. When it burns, its byproducts are water and carbon dioxide. No fumes, smog, or particulates. In terms of reducing air pollution, methane is the perfect hydrocarbon fuel. Since natural gas contains other components, it does produce some emissions; however, they are significantly lower than those from gasoline or diesel fuel,” he added.
On this point, John Eick, director of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, said, “As a result of the fracking ban, the state of New York will be forced to move to a less diverse electric generating mix. In addition, since the natural gas produced would have been local to the state, the transportation of other energy sources from out of state will likely result in greater emissions than would have occurred had natural gas been produced in New York.”