To Frack or Not To Frack in New York: Observations from a Donor Briefing

By Patricia Jenny, Program Director, Community Development & the Environment, The New York Community Trust

On July 19th, a group of funders met at Philanthropy New York and learned about the people and the passions behind a new campaign called New Yorkers Against Fracking. Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have decisions to make: whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing of natural gas to go forward in the State, and if so, how to regulate it. A de facto moratorium was put in place by former Governor Paterson several years ago pending completion of an environmental review process. In the meantime, the number of gas wells across the country has grown to more than 400,000; the natural gas industry is reporting record-breaking profits; and natural gas, often perceived as the bridge fuel to a cleaner energy economy, has become far more prominent in the nation’s mix of energy fuels.

But the process of hydraulic fracturing raises a number of environmental and public health concerns. To release shale gas, huge amounts of water, along with sand and toxic chemicals, are injected into rock. Underground water supplies are at risk of contamination; leftover wastewater, known as produced water, can contain toxic chemicals and leak into soil and water. Methane, a greenhouse gas, leaks during the excavation process, adding to climate change. The truck traffic and other related activities from the industrial excavation alter rural landscapes and put stress on communities.

The states are in the driver’s seat in terms of regulating hydrofracking because the process is exempt from most requirements of federal environmental laws. But only 13 of the 30 states with natural gas drilling have passed laws or established disclosure rules.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist at Ithaca College who has contributed the revenues from her recent Heinz Award to staff the New Yorkers Against Fracking coalition; she spoke at the briefing along with Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper, Julia Walsh of Frack Action and Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch. All described the power of this moment in New York State. Can New York write regulations that guarantee a process that could be done safely and cleanly without harm to public health or the environment? They would answer no—largely due to the dispersed nature of gas wells across a landscape and limited regulatory apparatus at the state level.

Hydrofracking is a complicated topic that has raised the interest of both energy and environmental health funders and, here in New York State, residents who are moved to protect the rural landscape, the burgeoning regional farming and wine-growing industries and community health. Our state is being closely watched as a decision from the governor is expected by the end of the summer. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

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