Today, New York became the first state to stand up to big oil and gas by imposing a formal moratorium on any new drilling using the controversial technology of high volume hydraulic fracturing - or "fracking" - prohibiting it from proceeding in the state unless demonstrated to be safe.
Although the full text of Governor Paterson's Executive Order establishing the moratorium has not yet been published, the press release announcing it earlier this afternoon states:
"The Executive Order requires that, if approved, high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing would not be permitted until July 1, 2011, at the earliest. This should allay any fears that high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling under study by DEC will commence without assurances of safety."
At the same time, though, the Executive Order is not as strong as legislation passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the state Legislature, because it does not apply to the fracking of vertical wells in shale formations, including the Marcellus and Utica Shales.
With today's action, Governor Paterson has acknowledged that fracking poses serious threats to our health and safe drinking water – but his moratorium only protects us so much. While he has called time-out on some kinds drilling, there remains a gaping loophole remaining that leaves New Yorkers at risk from the dangers of fracking.
With Paterson on his way out, and powerful oil and gas corporations still eyeing our backyards – it will be up to the incoming governor to close the loophole and follow through on protecting our future. We’re counting on Governor-elect Cuomo to make sure our health and environment are protected from the very real threats knocking on our door.
The issue with the exclusion from the Executive Order of vertical wells in the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations is two-fold. First, the gas industry has threatened to start drilling such vertical wells with the intention of later converting them to horizontal wells, which are precisely those that are banned by the new Executive Order and are the subject of current investigation by the state's Environmental Conservation department. Horizontal wells - which would be new in New York - involve the use of much higher volumes of so-called fracking fluids, i.e., water mixed with thousands of gallons of undisclosed chemicals and chemical-treated sands. Because it may be harder to deny permits for horizontal wells once vertical wells are drilled, there is a risk that companies could do an end-run around the on-going environmental review process.
Second, industry has also threatened to drill vertical wells in lieu of horizontal wells. State law mandates that only one horizontal well can be drilled per square mile, whereas 16 vertical wells could occupy the same area, carrying with them significant additional surface disturbance and environmental impacts.
Industry should be warned that any attempt to circumvent the on-going environmental review process by taking advantage of the the vertical well loophole created by Governor Paterson's new Executive Order will be closely watched by environmental groups.
It is also important to note that vertical wells - particularly those drilled in the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations - carry with them some of the same concerns associated with high volume hydrofracked horizontal wells. Indeed, the much-publicized problems in Dimock, PA were largely created by badly drilled vertical wells in the Marcellus Shale.
It is for all these reasons that we now look to Governor-elect Cuomo to ensure that New Yorkers' health, drinking water and environment are fully protected against the serious harms that have befallen those in other states that have not adequately evaluated the risks of new gas production using fracking. The New York State Senate and Assembly both understood that the will of the people of this state is strongly in favor of no new drilling unless industry demonstrates it is safe. We look forward to working with the new governor to ensure that the people's will is fully respected.