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New Report on Inadequate Fracking Enforcement in NY Should be Wakeup Call Across the Country

3 min. read

Finds "inadequate enforcement guarantees irresponsible oil and gas development in New York"

In late June, we wrote about an article in the Albany Times Union, regarding the cozy relationship between natural gas fracking companies and the state government of New York. As the article explained, an "overly cozy relationship between [New York's Department of Environmental Conservation] and the natural gas industry" means that "the gas industry got three laps around the track when everyone else was still at the starting gate."

Now, another report on this subject is out, this one by Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, explaining what that "overly cozy" relationship might mean in practice.  The bottom line, Earthworks argues, is that  "inadequate enforcement guarantees irresponsible oil and gas development in New York."

Needless to say, that should be of great concern, particularly given that New York is currently considering whether to begin issuing drilling permits, and with "industry projections suggest[ing] DEC will receive applications to drill approximately 1,600 Marcellus Shale wells in an average year over 30 years."

Even more disturbing, according to Earthworks, is that  "the majority of future oil and gas development in New York is going to be from more technically challenging unconventional oil and gas wells, which require larger volumes of water and chemicals and produce more waste than conventional wells."

Given the possibility of widespread oil and gas fracking in New York starting up in the near future, the need for a strong environmental enforcement system - preferably one that had been found to work effectively over a number of years - would appear obvious.  Instead, as Earthworks documents - based on a "review of publicly available DEC enforcement data" - the exact opposite appears to be the case.

  • "Inspections occur too infrequently and too irregularly...More than 75% of active oil and gas wells in New York were NOT inspected in 2010."
  • "Fines are inadequate...on average, less than $2,000 was collected per enforcement case."
  • "Lack of data prevents public evaluation of DEC’s oversight"
  • "Citizen complaints are not efficiently used to improve oversight"
It's also not comforting that Earthworks' calls to New York's Division of Mineral Resources (DMR), seeking "statistics on inspections, violations, and complaints" for "existing wells and facilities," were not returned.  It's even less comforting that when DMR finally emailed Earthworks, it was to let them know that DMR does "not currently have a database for the information requested." Clearly, none of this inspires much confidence that, if oil and natural gas fracking activities are allowed to ramp up in New York State, they will be properly managed (e.g., water supplies protected, toxic chemicals prevented from harming people's health and well being).

Where does all this leave us? In short, looking for strong leadership. Specifically, right now would be the perfect time for a bright young star in the Democratic Party, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to demonstrate his ability and (continued) willingness to stand up to powerful, oil and gas industry lobbyists on a crucial decision impacting public health and safety in his state. Clearly, deciding to allow natural gas fracking to move forward without adequate information, input and state oversight would be unacceptable. But that's exactly what oil and gas industry's lobbyists are pushing for.

Given Gov. Cuomo's strong track record on environmental issues to date and his clear understanding that environmental protection is both "an investment in the quality of life" and also something that can "benefit [the] economy for years to come," we are hopeful that he'll make the right call on this important decision for his state's future. As an added bonus, Gov. Cuomo could set a strong precedent for governors across the country, many of whom are also facing pressure from the oil and gas industry pressure to open the floodgates for fracking, to do what's right for their states, not just for one well-heeled industry with an agenda.