New York's Fracking Ban Clears Way for Clean Energy, Not Coal

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized Governor Cuomo for banning fracking in the state, citing concerns the ban will mean increased reliance on upstate coal-fired power plants.

Mayor Bloomberg is a formidable leader in the battle against climate change on the local, national and international scales. During his three-term tenure in New York City, he had an impressive track record on environmental matters--taking steps to reduce global warming emissions, boost our resiliency to sea level rise, expand green spaces, create new bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, among other accomplishments. He is also a philanthropic force--donating millions to fight climate change and coal. NRDC has been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this generosity, receiving grants from the foundation he created, Bloomberg Philanthropies, to limit carbon pollution and promote clean energy in China and the U.S.

When it comes to this critique of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's fracking ban, however, we have a different take. We wholeheartedly agree on the need to move away from coal to fuel our power plants. We don't back continued operation of existing coal plants or development of new ones, as the climate-changing and public health impacts of those plants are well known. But this was not--and should not be--an either-or choice.

While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, its development is not clean. A growing body of science supports community concerns that it puts clean air and safe drinking water at risk. On top of that, there are rampant uncontrolled leaks of methane--a potent climate change pollutant--throughout the gas production chain.

Instead of choosing one dirty source over another, we must put ourselves on a path to move away from fossil fuels and boost our clean energy resources: efficiency, solar power and wind energy. These energy sources are spreading like wildfire across the state. These are the sources that can power us into the future, lower energy bills, create jobs, and boost struggling upstate local economies. And, unlike fracking, we know they can do all this without putting drinking water at risk, leaking methane that fuels climate change, or dumping toxic chemicals into our air that have been linked to respiratory problems, birth defects, cancer, blood disorders, and nervous system impacts.

Furthermore, if the Governor had opened our state up to fracking despite all of this, it very likely would not have resulted in the closure of upstate coal power plants. The reason is two-fold.

First, the gas produced by fracking would go where the dollars are--or the pounds, or yen, or euros. Gas is increasingly a global commodity like oil, and market forces--often changing sharply from day to day--would dictate its destination. That means the sacrifice of New York communities would go toward powering other states, or even countries.

Second, widespread fracking in New York could disrupt our state's growing market for renewable energy. Particularly in light of the Obama administration's strong commitment to driving renewable energy and efficiency through his recently created Clean Power Plan--and similar directives at the state level--this would have been the wrong direction for New York.

For these reasons and more, we urged Governor Cuomo to let science, not politics, guide his decision on fracking. And to his great credit, he did. When the state made its announcement, the Commissioner of the Department of Health went through, in excruciating detail, each of the areas of scientific research his agency had reviewed to reach his decision. From water contamination to air pollution to community impacts, he made the case that (1) the developing science indicates potentially serious health impacts, and (2) there simply do not yet exist adequately robust longitudinal studies for us to fully determine the risks. (The state's full health report is available here.)

This decision was welcomed by residents of the Empire State. A Quinnipiac poll released shortly after the news broke showed that the majority of New Yorkers support the ban--upstate and downstate, and across party lines.

Governor Cuomo made the right decision for New York. The fracking ban has cleared the way for the state to focus on truly clean energy sources that will keep the lights on for future generations, without sacrificing our health.

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