This past Wednesday, Dec. 17th, officials in New York State announced a ban on fracking after a major report was issued by the state’s Health Department entitled “A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development” (pdf). This momentous announcement, which is not without controversy in New York given the need for economic development and recovery in the southern region of the state, is significant for at least three reasons:
- It bucks the recent trend of exponential expansion of fracking operations in many US states, notably North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. In particular, Illinois went through a contentious process of debate leading up to the enactment of a 2013 law allowing fracking within the Prairie State; the rules and regulations governing fracking in IL are still being refined and finalized, but operations are expected to commence sometime in 2015).
- NY’s ban was the result of sustained citizen action and grassroots resistance for several years. Upstate New York has been the epicenter of anti-fracking activism, led by celebrities such as Yoko Ono as well as scientist-activists like Sandra Steingraber, and this widespread pressure from tens of thousands of NY citizens resulted in a fracking moratorium by the Cuomo administration while state agencies studied the potential health and environmental impacts of the process. The moratorium, during which anti-fracking resistance only gathering more steam, gave state officials time and political space to vet the process at a reasonable pace, rather than in hurried boardroom negotiations.
- For once, the onus was put on showing fracking to be safe for the environment and human health, not that is was harmful. Here in the US, we test drugs for safety and efficacy before they are released for general consumption, which only makes common sense. Not so for industrial operations, chemical production, mining, oil and gas prospecting, etc. In those cases, potentially polluting and harmful practices are considered innocent until proven guilty. Given the nature of scientific uncertainty, it is therefore difficult to definitely prove that something like fracking is harmful; but by that same logic, it’s equally hard to prove that it’s absolutely safe. This is why the precautionary principle is advocated by environmentalists: from this perspective, something should be done if and when it is proven to be benign rather than harmful. The decision by New York to ban fracking is an extremely rare instance here in the US of reasoning from the basis of the precautionary principle.
Of particularly note is this passage from the NY Health Department fracking report’s Executive Summary:
Based on this review, it is apparent that the science surrounding HVHF activity is limited, only just beginning to emerge, and largely suggests only hypotheses about potential public health impacts that need further evaluation. That is, many of the published reports investigating both environmental impacts that could result in human exposures and health implications of HVHF activities are preliminary or exploratory in nature. However, the existing studies also raise substantial questions about whether the risks of HVHF activities are sufficiently understood so that they can be adequately managed.
Furthermore, the public health impacts from HVHF activities could be significantly broader than just those geographic locations where the activity actually occurs, thus expanding the potential risk to a large population of New Yorkers. As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of HVHF on public health is unlikely to ever be attained. In this instance, however, the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State. (pp. 1-2)
In addition, consider the comments made by the state’s acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker in his announcement this week of the report’s findings, as reported by the NY Times:
Holding up copies of scientific studies to animate his arguments, Dr. Zucker listed concerns about water contamination and air pollution, and said there was insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.
Dr. Zucker said his review boiled down to a simple question: Would he want his family to live in a community where fracking was taking place?
His answer was no.
“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”