The hydrofracking debate in New York state so far has generated plenty of heat but little light. Those who have tried to keep an open mind — wary of the industry’s claims that the natural gas extraction process poses little or no danger to the environment or human health, and of opponents’ claims that it will be a disaster on both counts — have waited for some disinterested party to give us solid science with which to judge costs vs. benefits.
Last week’s announcement by state Environmental Commissioner Joseph Martens that the health impacts of shale gas drilling will be reviewed by the state health department, which will consult with “the most qualified outside experts,” gives hope that we will finally get that information.
This is far better than the state Department of Environmental Conservation simply finalizing the draft environmental impact statement and regulations it has been working on, ending the moratorium on drilling imposed by Gov. David Paterson and starting to issue permits. That’s what could have happened, and in fact what many fracking opponents expected, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June announced a plan to allow limited drilling, in communities that want it, outside of the Catskill Park and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Environmentalists claim that the DEC review has given short shrift to health concerns, like possible pollution of water and pollution from increased truck traffic. They’ve called for a review by a university school of public health or other independent group.
Martens and Cuomo say an outside review isn’t necessary, that this is government’s job. In theory, yes: Impartial bureaucrats and agency personnel would do the reviews and write the regs without being influenced by politics or the industries they are supposed to regulate.
But in reality, the influence is often there. Suspicion of it in this case is increased because Bradley Field, head of DEC’s Mineral Resources Division, which would be regulating fracking, appears to be an apologist for the industry and a global warming denier (he signed a petition saying there was “no convincing scientific evidence” that human-caused greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are superheating the Earth’s atmosphere and disrupting its climate). DEC’s initial draft environmental review was pretty weak, and was strengthened only after many negative public comments.
If the health review isn’t going to be done by an independent group, it’s encouraging that DEC is at least involving the Health Department and encouraging it to get expert advice. But that process needs to be transparent, with the public knowing exactly who the experts were, what studies were relied on, and how the bureaucrats came to the conclusions they did.