For officials in the economically depressed region of New York state known as the Southern Tier, two recent hydraulic fracturing studies gave them the slightest glimmer of hope that the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo would reverse the state’s ban on hydraulic fracturing.
But in a brief email to Watchdog.org, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation shut the door on that.
“New York’s thorough review supports DEC’s conclusion that fracking should not be allowed to occur in New York state at this time,” DEC public information officer Lori Servino said.
The studies—one from Syracuse University and the other from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission—turned up no evidence thus far of water quality problems associated with large volumes of hydraulic fracturing, the process known as “fracking” that sends pressured liquids that breaks rock formations below the Earth’s surface to extract oil and natural gas deposits.
“The science shows it can be done in a way that’s responsible and not causing major problems,” said Carolyn Price, town supervisor for Windsor and president of the Upstate New York Towns Association.
But the DEC email to Watchdog.org put the kibosh on any possibility that the Cuomo administration is going to budge.
“This study does not remove the increasing scientific uncertainty surrounding significant environmental impacts” from high-volume hydraulic fracturing, Severino said.
Cuomo, a Democrat who was elected last November to a second term, put the fracking ban in place late last year, saying he relied on recommendations from DEC officials and an environmental impact statement they produced.
But an extensive study just released from Syracuse University found that intense fracking operations in northern Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio did not negatively affect the water quality in central New York.
The project was led by Don Siegel, professor of earth sciences at Syracuse, and consisted of a five-member team that tested more than 21,000 samples of groundwater in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.
Siegel told Watchdog.org the study’s report has been independently duplicated by Penn State in the review process.
The Syracuse study comes less than three months after an inspection of smaller streams in northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission came up with similar findings.
The Susquehanna report was the third in a series of tests done on 58 watersheds in the area between 2010 and 2013 and “did not indicate any changes in water quality” thus far. The water quality parameters are measured at five-minute intervals.
“This third report provides more information on the data collected as part of the Commission’s effort to evaluate whether or not water quality conditions in streams are reflecting impacts associated with natural gas drilling,” SRBC executive director Andrew Dehoff said in a news release.
“I’m not surprised, because various studies … carried out on water and water quality here have been supportive of hydraulic fracturing,” Price told Watchdog.org. “They’re just not finding problems.”
Supporters of natural gas development in the Southern Tier like Dan Fitzsimmons, executive director of the Joint Land Owners Coalition of New York, were encouraged by the two recent fracking studies but didn’t get their hopes up.
“It infuriates the land owners here even more,” Fitzsimmons said. “They see the evidence coming out, but it seems like this governor doesn’t want to look at anything.”
In February, Cuomo said, “I would never” consider lifting the fracking ban. Joe Martens, his commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said, “I don’t think it’s going to be revisited in the near term because the conclusion was that there was just far too many risks and we couldn’t minimize them to protect public health and safety.”
Supporters of the fracking ban are just as outspoken as their critics.
Roger Downs, conservation director for the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, called Siegel a “fracking cheerleader” in an email to Watchdog.org and dismissed both studies.
“This kind of junk science is corrosive to a real understanding of the problem and builds public complacency to water contamination where groundwater impacts from fracking may not be fully evident for decades.”
In a telephone interview with Watchdog.org, Siegel fired back.
“What Roger Downs doesn’t understand is science,” Siegel said. “The environmental community that is opposing hydraulic fracturing doesn’t understand science or chooses not to understand science[.] … I’m not saying there have not been instances of legitimate contamination of ground water by methane by industry … but it is extremely rare.”
Downs and others have criticized the Syracuse report because the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a major player in natural gas production, took responsibility for hiring the contractors who took water samples for Siegel and his team.
When Siegel “takes industry money to study drilling impacts on water, you know the results have been predetermined,” Downs said in his email.
Siegel said he took “the equivalent of one month’s summer salary” for the report and that Chesapeake didn’t put any constraints on his team or what would be published, whether the results were perceived as “pro-fracking” or “anti-fracking.”
Siegel said academic studies from outlets such as Duke University have received funding from environmentally friendly groups such as the Park Foundation that oppose fracking.
“I’m not pro-industry; I’m not pro-environment. I’m pro-science,” Siegel said, adding that he’s worked with environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy.
Cuomo’s decision made New York the second state to ban hydraulic fracturing, joining Vermont.
But Vermont does not possess large amounts of natural gas as New York does. The massive, energy-rich Marcellus Shale formation covers large sections of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania and also extends into the Southern Tier of New York.
Price sees natural gas as essentially the only hope for turning around the economic fortunes of places like Broome County, where some residents can look right across the border to Pennsylvania and see natural gas rigs.
“I recently was with two real estate agents who told me the inventory of homes (for sale) is at the highest level they’ve ever seen,” Price said. “It’s a much different picture than New York City where their population is rising. Their tax collections are going up. Things are very good for people in New York City. They’re not good for people in the Southern Tier.”
Binghamton is the largest city in the Southern Tier, and jobs are hard to come by.
Between 1990 and 2011, the metropolitan area suffered a net loss of more than 10,000 jobs, and a recent analysis showed that the manufacturing sector has been hit hardest, seeing a drop of 12.6 percent despite $303 million in economic development dollars coming to the Southern Tier through the Regional Economic Development Council program since 2011.
The lackluster economy and Cuomo’s fracking ban have even led some to talk of seceding from the Empire State.
The Cuomo administration says it’s aware of the problems in the Southern Tier and has allocated $50 million in new investments, including bolstering the wood products and agricultural industries and investing $20 million for renewable energy procurement in solar manufacturing and wind farms.
“You know, the state can only do so much and then it’s up to the localities to also come up with a business plan,” Cuomo said Sept. 1. “But [the] Southern Tier, we have more work to do, there’s no doubt about it. But overall, the arrows in every region are pointed up, and we just have to build on that.”
“Renewables are going to have the greatest return in the future and are going to be the most economic,” Downs told Watchdog.org earlier this year. “But I also think that there is tremendous advantage to reinvesting in New York’s agricultural infrastructure. We are rapidly becoming the country’s yogurt epicenter.”
“People who are opposed fossil fuels aren’t going to accept any study that shows natural gas can be developed responsibly,” Price said. “What people in the Southern Tier had hoped for all along is that the governor would be at least open to starting [hydraulic fracturing] slowly … If you start slowly and it reinforces these studies, then this area could move forward.”
Originally published in Watchdog.org.