Upstate New York debates fracking

The Buffalo News has some excellent local coverage on an intense debate currently unfolding in upstate New York over whether or not to allow for expanded natural gas drilling using the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  Fracking, which involves using large quantities of water laced with chemicals to blast cracks in underground bedrock and allow formerly trapped natural gas to escape, carries with it the promise to recover previously inaccessible gas resources, but also the inconvenient reality that it may contaminate groundwater.

A lot has been made of the abundance of natural gas resources in the United States, and the Marcellus Shale formation, which runs diagonally across the Northeast region and includes a large portion of New York State, is estimated to contain up to 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Although natural gas is generally touted as a cleaner burning alternative to conventional fossil fuels, the environmental risks associated with fracking have put a serious wrinkle in efforts to expand its extraction from hard to reach places like the Marcellus Shale.

The Buffalo News piece paints a great picture of the divide over fracking in rural parts of New York, laid bare in a town meeting Wednesday night where supporters and opponents filled a middle school auditorium for the first of eight public comment sessions on new drilling rules proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.  Notes from the meeting reflect the same eternal questions frequently pored over during environmental debates, as participants balanced threats to water supplies and natural scenery against the jobs and economic development promised by fracking proponents.

What the latter arguments fail to take into account, however, is that if natural gas companies had to pay the price of the external damages caused by fracking – the environmental costs, the potential hazards to public health from unsafe drinking water, the beating that local roads would take from an increased volume in heavy trucking – the perceived economic benefits may begin to look a bit more illusory, and energy companies might just find it more expedient to leave all that natural gas where its rested comfortably for millions of years.  Who pays the price when all of the energy resources have been extracted from the Marcellus Shale, the gas companies leave, and upstate New York bears an irredeemable scar where its rural scenery used to be?  Who pays the health care costs of someone who drinks water that is only found to be contaminated years later?  Who pays for the roads that get torn up from a projected 1,000 percent increase in heavy truck traffic?

If these costs went into the economic calculus of fracking, or the larger-scale debate between fossil fuels versus clean energy, we might have a significantly different energy situation on our hands.  Can’t we just find an energy source that doesn’t present us with a phony either-or decision between preserving nature and bringing economic opportunities to people that need them?

To ‘frack’ or not?  Public responds (The Buffalo News)