Fracking in New York, Feeling the Tremors in Europe

How the Empire State’s new ban on horizontal drilling could send shockwaves around the world.


It’s been a rough month for fracking. First, oil prices upended the economics of the once-booming shale fields. Then on Dec. 17, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned the controversial oil and gas-extraction practice after the release of a state report highlighting uncertainties that cloud virtually every aspect of the science. The most powerful condemnation came in the form of personal testimony. “Would I live in a community with [fracking] based on the facts that I have now? Would I let my child play in a school field nearby?” asked Howard Zucker, the acting state health commissioner at a cabinet meeting at which the ban was announced. “After looking at the plethora of reports behind me … my answer is no.”

New York’s ban is a bigger deal than those in smaller places like Vermont, or the Texas college town of Denton. New York’s will resonate — not just in the United States, but around the world, rejuvenating groups like Australia’s Lock the Gate or Britain’s Frack Off. Think of it this way: America invented fracking, and if its third-most populous state, which sits atop part of the natural gas-laden Marcellus Shale, lacks confidence in the practice, other nations worried about air and water pollution will certainly take notice. “Because New York is New York, I think this would generally get a lot more attention [in places like Australia] than, say, Vermont,” says Tony Wood, who leads the energy program at Australia’s Grattan Institute.

Oil and gas advocates say that New York’s fracking ban is driven by politics, penalizes economically depressed towns, and will lead to increased dependence on other, dirtier sources of fuel (read: coal). They also argue that fracking can be done safely, given the right oversight. But New York’s report, which surveys the existing science on fracking, also drives at the heart of the concerns about the practice — that nobody has a full picture of the environmental effects of using massive amounts of chemical-laced water to drill for oil and gas.

Americans have been fracking for generations, using everything from dynamite to nuclear bombs to blast their way into oil-laden reserves, as the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold recounts in his new book, The Boom. But the proliferation of modern fracking — from about 2 percent to 38 percent of U.S. natural gas production over about the past decade, according to the American Petroleum Institute, with a similar surge for fracked oil — has left regulators scrambling to figure out the best way of overseeing the technology, which differs considerably from conventional oil and gas drilling.

A host of unanswered health, geologic, and best-practices questions remain. How often do chemical-laced liquids — or the equally nasty water that surges out of a well along with oil and gas — spill out of trucks, leach out of the ponds where they are stored, or seep into groundwater? How much benzene, diesel exhaust, and other harmful air pollutants do fracking facilities and trucks spew out? And how harmful are they? How often does fracking, or the process of disposing of wastewater deep underground, cause earthquakes? How effective are regulators at enforcing good behavior? Many argue that fracking can be done safely, given the appropriate regulations. But companies large and small have leaped into drilling and associated businesses, and some may be less careful than others.

The oil and gas industry, for its part, has taken an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach as it has ramped up production in North Dakota, Texas, and many other places. New York, whose report surveyed the existing science, flipped the script: guilty until proven innocent. “The current scientific information is insufficient,” the report states. “Furthermore, it is clear from the existing literature and experience that [fracking activity] has resulted in environmental impacts that are potentially adverse to public health.”

Until there is enough science on the risks and how to manage them, New York is banning “high-volume” fracking, which can use several million gallons of water (less water-intensive fracking, common around the nation for decades, will continue). New Brunswick, the province in eastern Canada, is taking a similar tack: this week, the premier announced a moratorium on fracking until five conditions are met, including a greater understanding of the environmental impacts that will guide regulations.

To be sure, scientists have been churning out fracking studies for years. California is even expected to publish its own independent study by July, following on the heels of New York. Most of the research has taken place in the United States, but Europeans have also been working on studies: a Dutch study last year, for example, found that fracking carried environmental risks, albeit ones that could be managed due to the extra depth of the nation’s shale reserves. But as I have written before, fracking is such a multi-faceted process, with geological complexities that are difficult to model, that scientists are nowhere close to forming a complete picture of its impacts. Moreover, ensuring the objectivity of studies is difficult, with industry money financing some researchers and environmentalists funding others. The collection of relevant statistics, such as spills of fracking-related water from trucks or storage ponds, varies considerably from state to state.

But that isn’t going to stop the global repercussions of this report. Europe has more in common with New York than it does with frack-heavy states like Texas or North Dakota. New York is densely populated, and its energy regulators are not funded by oil and gas campaign money, as occurs in those other states. So New York’s prioritization of environmental risk-mitigation over economic gain could resonate with a populous, cautious, Europe. The idea of a United States that is split on fracking could help European anti-fracking campaigners, says Julian Popov, a fellow at the European Climate Foundation.

But Popov also adds that the New York ban is unlikely to reverse the tide in countries like Britain and Romania, where the governments support fracking but have encountered fierce opposition, or Poland, where early results have been disappointing. Europe is torn over fracking: It would love to have the natural gas to help wrest itself from Russia’s grip, but fears the environmental consequences. Nations like France and Bulgaria have banned the practice, and New York’s decision will make it harder for them to back down. The ban also comes at a key time moment in European energy policymaking, Popov explains. Over the next few months, the European Union will try to synergize member nations’ energy policies, a concept called the “Energy Union.” The New York ban will keep fracking farther from that conversation, says Popov, and instead increase the focus on easier-to-agree-on matters like optimizing cross-border infrastructure and saving energy.

As if environmental opposition weren’t enough, falling energy prices are discouraging drillers. Compared to last year, “the outlook for any shale gas development in Europe is very much worse (and even last year it wasn’t good),” says Jonathan Stern, a natural gas expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, in an email. The only nation that is still trying hard, he said, is Britain, where some wells have recently been drilled but not fracked. “Elsewhere in Europe, the story is of companies pulling out — Poland and more recently Ukraine (although partly for other reasons) — and no light in the tunnel of opposition in other countries.”

Amid the lull, New York’s move could serve as a wake-up call for the industry. Fracking needs less environmental uncertainty for people living nearby to reconcile to it. “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great,’” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as he announced the ban.

Fracking provides jobs, economic uplift, and cheaper energy. But it comes at such unknown environmental costs, New York officials decided, that even strictly regulated fracking is not worthwhile. Oil and gas companies will fiercely contest this, and argue that fracking can be done safely with the appropriate regulatory measures. But whether those safety measures are in place is up for debate. “No state has comprehensive rules, and many fall woefully short of what’s needed,” wrote Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a Washington Post op-ed arguing that New York’s move calls for “strong, sensible” regulations. “That has led to corrosive distrust by the public, and distrust led to the New York ban and others like it.”

Without the overhanging environmental worries, fracking would be enormously popular. No nation wants to turn away a cheap, homegrown energy source that’s cleaner than coal and can help the world transition to even cleaner renewables. Fracking produces oil too, and every nation wants that. But environmental worries remain at the heart of the debate. And as the world waits to see where and how quickly American technology will spread, the revolt in New York could add fuel to the groundswell of opposition.

Leon Neal / AFP

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush, and her work has appeared in the Texas Tribune, the New York Times, and the Economist.  Twitter: @kategalbraith