A Holiday Fracking Tale of Two Governors: Maryland vs. New York

This Thanksgiving, what I am most grateful for (aside from my family, of course) is that I live in a state with a governor who has so far stood strong against the pressures from the oil and gas industry and continued to hold fracking in abeyance.

New York’s Governor Cuomo has sagely maintained a de facto fracking moratorium that has been in existence since 2008, before he took office as governor. In honoring that moratorium, he has steadfastly insisted that he will let science guide the state’s ultimate policy decisions on this high-impact gas extraction technique, promising to protect the health and water of all New Yorkers. That’s exactly the right posture, and for it I am thankful.  Our recent polling suggests approximately 80% of New Yorkers share that sentiment.

Recently, the governor has indicated that the pending health review — intended to influence the state’s ultimate decision on fracking — will be completed by year’s end. Science shows this is much too soon. So, as we enter this holiday season, my greatest wish is that Governor Cuomo will formally extend the moratorium by a minimum of three to five years. As the Concerned Health Professionals of New York have urged, with the support of a 70-page compendium of medical and scientific studies, a moratorium of at least that length is necessary to allow the science to continue to mature, such that we can better understand the full measure of health risks.

Now, here's something that doesn't make me — and surely many Marylanders — thankful at all: Outgoing Maryland Governor O’Malley has marred this Thanksgiving with his untimely — and more than a little inexplicable — decision to greenlight fracking in his state. In announcing the decision, O’Malley claims fracking will go forward only with the strictest safeguards. Easy for him to say. He’ll soon be out of office, succeeded by a governor-elect who has called drilling a potential “economic gold mine.” That doesn’t sound like a governor who is likely to embrace, much less enforce, strict safeguards. That’s not to mention the fact that we’ve yet to see a set of safeguards sufficient to protect public health and the environment from fracking’s risks.

Why does his decision seem so discordant? For one thing, it flies in the face of what most of the science to date shows: that fracking isn’t safe. Even more mystifying, it flagrantly disregards the conclusions of Maryland’s own health experts. And, for an outgoing governor who might be considering future political ambitions, it is inconsistent with recent national polling by Pew Research that shows that significantly more Americans oppose fracking than support it.

The timing is also a jolt for us (and real reason for concern), not only because it’s Thanksgiving week, but because we expressed our strong views on the inadvisability of proceeding with fracking in Maryland just last week. On behalf of the 9,000 NRDC members in Maryland, we sent to the Maryland Department of the Environment our thorough analysis of the state’s Marcellus Shale Risk Assessment. We reminded the department of a study issued in July by the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. That study argued that the risks from fracking are substantially higher than the state's assessment found.

As I said in a cover letter with our comments to the Department of Environment, the institute’s study found that fracking in the Marcellus Shale in western Maryland would bring a high or moderately high likelihood of severe public health impacts in eight areas, including air, water and soil quality, and others.

“NRDC therefore recommends that Maryland continue its existing moratorium on Marcellus Shale development until potential health impacts and the extent to which they can be mitigated, if at all, can be more fully understood,” the cover letter said. What followed were 33 pages of analysis, prepared by a petroleum engineer who is a nationally recognized expert on fracking, laying out a clear case why it’s not safe to allow fracking to move ahead in Maryland. The governor's decision came so soon after our comments that you have to wonder whether anybody in Maryland state government even had time to read them, let alone weigh them seriously.

Over the next few weeks, we hope Governor Cuomo will take a look at Governor O’Malley’s precipitous, scientifically unwarranted decision and make a formal announcement that he will continue New York’s moratorium until the science is complete — something that is not possible for at least three to five years. We’re thankful for what he has done to now, and hopeful that he’ll stand fast, despite the unfortunate example of his fellow governor. Whatever else may happen, I can guarantee this: The roll call of gratitude at my family’s Thanksgiving table will not include any mention of Maryland’s decision.