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Assembly hearing on fracking paints a dark picture

Matt Richmond

One of the more tense exchanges during Thursday's hearing was between Karen Moreau of the New York State Petroleum Council and Democratic Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh.

After Moreau asserted that hydrofracking has never contaminated groundwater, Kavanagh pushed her to clarfiy the statement:

Kavanagh: You believe there’s been no groundwater contamination from this practice? Moreau: I’m talking about, the problem is people mix apples and oranges here, that’s part of the issue here…people mix up... Kavanagh: Well, that’s what we’re here for is to get clarity, so let’s separate the apples from the oranges. Moreau: You have a drilling process, you have a casing process, you have a fracking process, you have a removal of wastewater from a site. There’s a lot of things that go along with development. Kavanagh: Right and what we would be approving is a process that includes all of those elements, if the state were to approve high volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Moreau: The state is going to be regulating every aspect of this development. Kavangh: I understand that and that development is currently not permitted. And if they approve it, it’ll be permitted. So what I’m asking you is when you said in your testimony, you sort of summarized the history of groundwater contamination, that single sentence, and I’m just trying to understand, do you believe that this process, as it’s been practiced elsewhere, has or has not caused groundwater contamination in other places? Moreau: There are clearly cases…

To opponents of hydrofracking in New York, Moreau’s statement that, in fact, fracking has contaminated groundwater may come as a surprise. It is an admission that industry representatives seldom make publicly.

The pupose of the hearing was to collect public comments on the state’s revised hydrofracking regulations. The commenting period closed on Friday and final regulations are due to be released at the end of February.

The marathon day-long session was dominated by arguments against fracking and against the way the state has handled the environmental review process.

Among the witnesses was David Carpenter, director of University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment. Carpenter offered a succinct assessment of health protections in the proposed regulations:

“Grossly inadequate.”

Carpenter laid out a number of main threats to human health that are not fully addressed in the proposed regulations:

  • Wastewater treatment facilities are not capable of fully treating fracking wastewater.
  • Radium can come up with the wastewater from some wells, it's the precursor of radioactive radon gas and there are no safe exposure levels for either.
  • The volatile organics released into the air from drilling sites pose a threat to local populations.
  • And the fourth and fifth are noise and light pollution aggravated by what Carpenter described as insufficient 500-foot setbacks from structures, including homes.

When asked whether fracking could be made safe enough, Carpenter answered that new engineering solutions have to be found.

“And doing that properly necessitates, first of all, clearly understanding what the health risks are, what must be avoided and then holding the feet of the engineers to the fire until they develop technology that will prevent the release of these things into our air,” said Carpenter.

The state’s environmental review of fracking is in the final stages. The Department of Health has enlisted a three-member panel to review the Department of Environmental Conservation’s consideration of health risks. But what exactly they’re reviewing has not been released by either the DOH or the DEC.

Carpenter spoke highly of the panel members chosen by the Department of Health, but had less optimism about the task they were given when asked by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried:

Gottfried: The charge to the panel has been described to me as look at the draft EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] and tell us what you think. If that is their charge, is that, can we get a meaningful response if that is their charge? Carpenter: Absolutely not. That is much too limited a charge. I suspect that is what their charge was.

Assemblymembers went on to question a key claim of fracking supporters: that the upstate economy, particularly the Southern Tier, will benefit from fracking.

Among the dozens of witnesses called was Jannette M. Barth, an economist who has criticized pro-fracking economic studies in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Much of her recent work can be found here.

On the pro-fracking side, studies supporting the industry's benefits to local and national economies can be found here.

While Barth hasn't responded to every jobs and economic impact study, and there have been many, her main assertion is that the benefits are over-reported and short-lived. In a 2010 report titled "Unanswered Questions About The Economic Impact of Gas Drilling In the Marcellus Shale: Don’t Jump to Conclusions," Barth laid out her counter-arguments:

If the anticipated growth in jobs and income in the oil and gas industry does not occur, then the desired indirect and induced economic impacts will not occur, and local and state tax revenues will not grow as hoped. If newly created jobs are filled by non-permanent and transient workers, then both income tax and retail tax revenue will be lower than anticipated. Likewise, as many of the established support firms for the oil and gas industry are not located in New York State, corporate tax revenue will be less than anticipated. The imposition of a substantial severance tax should be considered in New York State not only to ensure that the state will have some revenue to use for mitigation of environmental, health and infrastructure degradation, but also to ensure some revenue to the state in the likely event that the overall economic impact is not as substantial as is currently being assumed.

Assemblymembers used Barth's arguments to press supporters on drilling's economic benefits.

The most pointed questioning was directed at the Petroleum Council's Moreau. After being grilled about groundwater contamination by Assemblyman Kavanagh, Democratic Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell questioned her on the economics of natural gas drilling:

O'Donnell: What is it that you think we’re supposed to do when independent economists and scientists who know stuff that you and I lawyers just don’t know say that your commercials are wrong, that the information you give is wrong, that the health impact is wrong? What is it you think that we’re supposed to do? Now I sense that you think that because I am from Manhattan, I should just say I don’t get a voice. Sorry Ms. Moreau, that’s not happening. But what are we supposed to do, when all of these people come before us and say this is a real problem? [cut] Moreau: Well, I guess, my sense of things when it does come to the issue of upstate and downstate is that not enough has been done by people who make policy in this state for upstate communities in the Southern Tier. So I guess my question is, what have you been doing for all these years? And why do people have to live desperate lives in these places and they do, and there are people, nothing against Manhattan, but when I go down there and I talk to my friends and we talk about this issue, one of the common things people say to me is yea, I know, there’s nothing up there, there’s nothing for people to do. My friend’s a hairdresser, but she can’t work up there, there’s no work. So I guess my question is, we do know right now that the economic situation in that part of the state is desperate.

The full, 11-hour video of the hearings can be found here.

Opponents of fracking called on the assembly to pass a moratorium until a full health impact review is completed and until the environmental review of fracking fully corrects what they view as a long list of inadequacies.

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