Don’t get too excited about NY frack ban

December 18th, 2014

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to extend a six-year ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has received plenty of coverage, but there are a few facts that should be considered before getting too excited:

  • This isn’t a new ban – it’s an extension of an existing six year prohibition in place in New York State
  • This isn’t the end of the natural gas industry in New York State – conventional gas resource development in instances where fracking is not required will still be able to be developed
  • The ban applies only to high volume hydraulic fracturing – low volume fracking stages are still permitted.

The irony of the state with the fifth highest natural gas consumption in the United States, and which sits on the largest untapped reserves across the Marcellus Shale, shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should the fact that the State’s own regulators have previously found that fracking can proceed safely.

Previous reports

A 2011 report from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found that fracking can be conducted safely. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said at the time:

“We’ve deliberated, we’ve considered the comments, we have looked at what’s gone on in other states…And at the end of this stage of the deliberations, we’ve concluded that high-volume hydrofracking can be undertaken safely, along with strong and aggressive regulations.”

A year later, the New York Department of Health concluded that:

“significant adverse impacts on human health are not expected from routine HVHF (hydro fracking) operations.”

The latest report

As Energy in Depth’s analysis of the latest Cuomo decision shows, some of the scientific arguments upon which the decision was built are, at best, questionable.

For example, included in the new health assessment report is reference to a study from Oswald and Bamberger looking at farm animals in proximity to gas wells, which has already been widely discredited by many, including Professor Ian Rae from the University of Melbourne, who said:

It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep (no pun intended!) analysis of the data gathered to support its case.”

As we reported previously, the Oswald and Bamberger study has popped up in multiple submissions to the Tasmanian Government’s review of hydraulic fracturing, but that doesn’t make it any more credible.

The full New York Department of Health report is here.

Even though the report recommends a ban on high volume fracking, the following concession is interesting:

As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of HVHF on public health is unlikely to ever be attained” (page 2)

Viewing the report in context

Anti-industry activists here have been quick to hitch their wagons (or at least their keyboards) to the decision, but let’s not get too excited.

The Australian natural gas industry operates under a different regulatory framework, and assessments like that undertaken by the NSW Chief Scientist have shown that risks can be managed.

Just this week, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority issued new advice on hydraulic fracturing, demonstrating an evolving regulatory framework designed to strengthen the environmental protections that apply to the development of onshore unconventional gas projects.

And the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) is close to finalising a national assessment of chemicals used in coal seam gas extraction – another report that will contribute to the local fact base about the industry.

The reaction to the Cuomo decision shouldn’t be a social media campaign to earnestly urge a ban on fracking in Australia.

It should be viewed as a policy decision taken in a different jurisdiction in an environment where ideology has overriden science.

The debate in Australia needs to be based on evidence and fact – not activist group reports on a policy decision on the US east coast.

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