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New York state bans fracking due to health and environmental risks

19 December 2014

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will be banned in New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration announced on December 18. This follows the submission of a report which concluded the method of extracting oil and gas potentially poses serious health and environmental risks. New York has had a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing since 2008. 

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Vermont is the only other US state to ban fracking.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said he had identified ``significant public health risks'' that prevented him approving the technique.

The 184-page report, conducted by the New York State Department of Health, cites potential environmental impacts and health hazards as reasons for the ban. The research incorporates findings from multiple studies conducted across the country and highlights seven major concerns:

*Respiratory health: The report cites the dangers of methane emissions from natural gas drilling in Texas and Pennsylvania, which have been linked to asthma and other breathing issues.

*Drinking water: Shallow methane-migration underground could seep into drinking water, one study found, contaminating wells. Another found brine from deep shale formations in groundwater aquifers.

*Health complaints: Residents near active fracking sites reported having symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, nosebleeds, and headaches according to studies.

*Seismic activity: The report cites studies from Ohio and Oklahoma that explain how fracking can trigger earthquakes.

*Climate change: Excess methane can be released into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

*Soil contamination: One analysis of a natural gas site found elevated levels of radioactive waste in the soil, potentially the result of surface spills.

*Local community issues: The report refers to problems such as noise and odour pollution, citing a case in Pennsylvania where gas harvesting was linked to increases in automobile accidents and heavy truck crashes.

Supporters of fracking dispute major aspects of the report. As regards water pollution, for example, they point to then-Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson’s testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2011, when she said she was not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.

In 2011, the MIT Energy Initiative released a 170-page report on natural gas fracking which concluded the fracturing process itself posed minimal risk to groundwater and does not create environmental concerns.

The most definitive study, published in a September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found eight cases of gas polluting 133 drinking water wells in Texas and Pennsylvania, none of which were caused by fracking. Most were caused by faulty well casings and cementing.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who legalised fracking in his state, said Cuomo was making a mistake. “If you put the right regulations in place, you can protect the environment,” he said.

The potential for fracking in New York is considerable as the state shares the very productive Marcellus shale formation with neighbouring Pennsylvania, where thousands of wells produce volumes of natural gas roughly equal to the total amount being produced by Iran.

According to some estimates, more than 21,000 are employed in Pennsylvania in the oil and gas industry earning an average salary of $71,000 per year. In 2011, a report for the Manhattan Institute estimated that shale-gas drilling in New York would spur more than $11 billion in economic output and create as many as 18,000 jobs.

Dean Skelos, the Republican co-leader of the New York State Senate, said the move was shaped by politics, not science. “The decision implies that at least 30 other states and the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency are wrong about the health impacts and do not care about the well-being of millions of American citizens,” he said in a statement.

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