The true test and measure of New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s position as a “man of the people” may not take place on the streets, but in the sedimentary rock of our state’s Southern Tier.
The central issue involves an area called the Marcellus Shale, which extends from Ohio and West Virginia northeast into Pennsylvania and across southern New York that holds vast gas reserves coveted by the oil and gas industry. Those in the industry and their supporters say in addition to the 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be extracted for energy use, thousands of well-paying jobs could also be generated.
However, the manner in which the gas would be extracted, hydrofracking, is driving much of the controversy over its potential harmful effects to the health of the state’s residents and the possible contamination of the reservoirs that provide New York City and its suburbs with drinking water.
Marcellus Shale is defined as a unit of marine sedimentary rock found in the eastern part of North America. Named after an outcrop near the village of Marcellus, N.Y., the rock stretches throughout a good chunk of the Appalachian Basin. Hydraulic fracturing is a process where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure deep into the ground to extract natural gas in shale rock. Energy companies have considered this area of untapped reserves a real bonanza.
But not so fast.
Assembly Member Robert Sweeney, who is the chair of the House Environmental Conservation Committee, recently introduced a bill, A07400, that would suspend the permitting process for fracking until New York State could carefully weigh the environmental and public health impacts of the practice. The bill passed in the Assembly, but in a State Senate dominated by big business-friendly Republicans, it might have a hard time making its way through. And even if it did pass through the Senate, a seemingly fracking-friendly governor has shown no signs of interest to alternate points of view.
An organization called the Occupy the Delaware River Basin Commission stated that “the people of the four states who depend on the clean water of the Delaware River Basin filed 68,000 statements with the Delaware River Basin Commission [DRBC], overwhelmingly against allowing drilling in the watershed. But politicians have been bought off, and all indications are that the DRBC will agree to a corporate sellout of terrifying proportions at the November 21 meeting.”
The DRBC consists of the four state governors of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the division engineer of the North Atlantic Division of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who serves as the federal representative.
Meanwhile, a former governor has thrown his hat into the ring. George Pataki wrote an editorial in last week’s New York Daily News advocating an approval of fracking and talked about the amount of jobs it would bring to the state.
“The benefits of these natural gas reserves for our economy would be enormous, even transformational,” said Pataki. “Domestic natural gas waiting to be unlocked will give us the opportunity to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while making our air cleaner through the use of more natural gas in electric power generation and transportation.
“The development of the Marcellus Shale formation means jobs and investment throughout New York. Right now, these jobs are being created directly across the border in Pennsylvania. New York needs jobs,” wrote Pataki. “The April 2011 state jobs report estimates 259,400 upstaters are currently unemployed. An influx of even half those jobs created in Pennsylvania would make a big difference to New York families.”
According to Pataki, the same study showed that the average wage in 2010 for jobs in the basic gas industry was $69,995. The average wage in support industries like construction, steel and engineering was $63,967.
But will New Yorkers be willing to accept a good wage at the cost of their health? The record on fracking nationally has been, to say the least, problematic. Last year, inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency warned residents of Pavillion, Wyo., to not cook, drink or ventilate their homes when they showered with water in order to get a more precise picture of the extent of the contamination of monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in the town.
According to a recently released study by the EPA, a couple of monitoring wells were revealed to hold high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical-a solvent called 2-butoxyethanol-commonly used in fracking. The EPA also said the wells contained benzene 50 times the level that’s considered safe for people, along with acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.
Cuomo will have to decide whether fracking is really worth the potential health and environmental costs when weighed against possible big profits for the oil and gas industry.