Hydrofracking: Economic Opportunity or Environmental Hazard - Or Both?

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC's own Ilya Marritz was interviewed about the controversy around 'hydrofracking,' the process of breaking up rocks in order to extract natural gas.

Energy companies are very excited about the potential of hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," to create millions of dollars of domestically produced energy. Many government officials and unemployed workers are buzzing about the new technology as well, because of the possibility of creating thousands of jobs in economically depressed towns upstate.

But environmental activists are finding themselves in the common, but uncomfortable, position of raining on the 'fracking' parade.

They are concerned that the procedure will pollute New York's water supply—and not only the reserves upstate near the Marcellus Shale, where the companies want to extract—but also the New York City watershed. Marritz said because the gas is dispersed in the rock, it requires a more invasive procedure to reach the gas:

"With hydrofracking the gas is dispersed in the rock, and you have to do a lot more to break up the rock, including blasting down 
huge amts of water, chemicals and sand to break it up and really free up the gas, that's where some of the environmental problems come in."

You have to do a lot more to break up the rock, including blasting down huge amounts of water, chemicals and sand to break it up and really free up the gas, that's where some of the environmental problems come in.

It comes down to this: proponents say hydrofracking can be done safely, create jobs, and give New Yorkers much needed cheap energy. Opponents contend that it's a very dangerous thing, and the only way to ensure safety for all New Yorkers is with intense regulation and high taxes on energy companies.

It's also become a campaign issue. In the recent gubernatorial debate, Democrat Andrew Cuomo was cautious, Freedom Party nominee Charles Barron said Cuomo was being too cautious, and Republican Carl Paladino was ready to get started on hyfrofracking immediately. Cuomo's statements are causing a lot of agitation among both sides of the issue, because they're so vague it's impossible to define where he is likely to fall on the issue if elected governor.

We don't know what his position is on the environmental review that's now in progress. We don't know the kind of person he might appoint to be the head of the DEC, the main agency that does regulation there. We really don't know a great deal about his position. He just says 'I'm in favor of doing it safely and protecting the watershed.'

Hydrofracking has also popped up in the Attorney General race, because the person in that seat has the power to file lawsuits and use the press to call attention to the issue. Republican Dan Donovan has said he sees the potential benefits for people upstate, while Eric Schneiderman appears to be much more anti-frack.

Marritz pointed out that natural gas divides the environmental movement as well. The local and state environmental groups stand to be negatively affected the most, and have a NIMBY point of view. But some of the national environmental groups, based in Washington, see natural gas as much more palatable than coal, nuclear or oil, and consider it a unique type of energy extraction they could actually get behind.

They see something domestically available, it is relatively clean burning, even though it's not always clean to get out of the ground, and to them, they don't always want to say 'no' to every form of energy. Some national environmental groups have actually had real tension with the local people who don't like it. Because they say, 'I want to say yes to something, and natural gas has a quite a bit about it that's attractive.'

Listen to the entire Brian Lehrer Show segment here: