Activists and politicians in the greater Morningside area agree that hydraulic fracturing, a controversial practice to harvest natural gas, is bad for the environment. But Governor Andrew Cuomo’s move to require additional governmental review of the practice has divided them, with politicians supporting the decision and activists calling for an independent study.
After state regulators completed a four-year environmental review, Cuomo, who had earlier suggested his support for the practice, sent the study back to the drawing board. He announced late last month that the regulations on fracking, which requires injecting chemical-laden water into the ground in order to exploit natural gas in shale rock, would be re-examined in an in-house review by the end of November.
While supporters say fracking is perfectly safe, environmental groups say it poses a serious threat to public drinking water. Cuomo angered environmental activists and put politicians across the city on edge when he said fracking could help bring jobs back to New York, but his decision to reconsider has appeased them.
“I am grateful to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his leadership on this issue and for his commitment to our environment,” New York State Senate member Adriano Espaillat said in a statement.
Espaillat’s support is a far cry from his attitude toward Cuomo a year ago, when he strongly criticized the governor at a town hall.
“The governor feels like he can bail out New York by fracking,” Espaillat said in May 2011. “We should come forward and push back on Governor Cuomo.”
Ibrahim Khan, an Espaillat spokesperson, said that Espaillat has helped lead the pushback, organizing a bus trip to the Marcellus shale rock site in eastern Pennsylvania, where fracking has occurred, in order to raise awareness for the issue. On the trip, Khan said, Espaillat talked with residents there who showed him how fracking adversely affected their water quality.
“This is not just an academic exercise for us,” Khan said. “The more these facts come out and the more time we have to advocate against this, the better.”
State Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, who represents Morningside Heights, said that he supported any measure that further investigated its impact in areas like water safety.
“Not all the facts are in yet regarding the potentially devastating drilling method, and the health of millions of New Yorkers could be directly impacted should it be permitted,” he said in a statement. “Hydrofracking is simply too risky and too hazardous to allow in our state.”
Although they hailed the governor’s hesitation as a victory, environmental activists called for a comprehensive third-party study into the health effects of fracking, rather than a governmental review. John Armstrong, a grassroots coordinator for the anti-fracking group Frack Action, said a study by an independent group would help put the matter to bed once and for all.
“If the governor does a comprehensive, independent Health Impact Assessment, we are confident that it would find that fracking cannot be done safely,” Armstrong said. “The question is whether the Department of Health is now taking this seriously, or just as a political move to rubber stamp what the DEC has already done,” he said, referring to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
In a newsletter to supporters, Roger Downs, a project manager for the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, expressed similar reservations about the process. He demanded an independent assessment of fracking and accused the governor of ducking a politically important issue until after the election.
“In consideration of what is at stake and the amount of public resources that are being expended to conduct this charade, it may be incumbent upon all of us to finally stand up and put an end to the nuance,” Downs wrote. “The fight to ban fracking from New York is far from over.”
Cuomo’s office did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Supporters of fracking—few and far between on the Upper West Side—say the review will confirm that the practice is environmentally safe.
“When Governor Cuomo grounds his decision in science and fact, as he’s said he would, we are confident that New Yorkers will be able to enjoy the numerous economic and environmental benefits that natural gas offers,” Daniel Whitten, vice president for strategic communications at America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said in a statement.