Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has been linked to everything from polluted water to earthquakes, but the rush toward developing the practice hasn't slowed much.
Although residents of small towns across New York state have something to be hopeful for. They were successful in banning the practice, for now.
Could this be how the controversy is resolved?
This week, a New York state judge ruled that the town of Dryden, N.Y., could prohibit fracking as part of its zoning ordinance. It's one of 30 towns throughout central and southern New York that have taken the step. State environmental officials in New York placed a moratorium on fracking while they come up with new regulations to cover oil and gas drilling in the underground geological deposits.
Environmental groups say the ruling is a victory for residents who are concerned that fracking contaminates drinking water supplies by leaking hazardous chemicals like methane that occur in naturally in hydrological deposits, or other toxic compounds that are used to flush out the gas.
“A number of towns were waiting to see how the litigation gets settled,” said Kate Hudson, watershed program director for the group Riverkeeper. “But nobody thinks it is the end.”
Adam Schultz, a Syracuse attorney who represents the interests of several oil and gas drilling companies, said the New York judge’s ruling was “unfortunate.”
“I don’t think (the ruling) is consistent with the intent of the legislation and it will encourage some communities to think they have some authority that they ultimately will be told they don’t have,” Schultz said. “This is the lowest level court. I’m confident it will be overturned. It’s 180 degrees from what the (New York) legislature intended.”
The oil and gas companies have 30 days to appeal the ruling, which was handed down Feb. 21. The battle between industry and environmental groups in New York is important because other states are watching the outcome.
New York sits on the northern part of a geological region called the Marcellus Shale formation, which may hold enough natural gas to supply the U.S. for about seven years, according to the U.S. Energy Department. U.S. states from Wyoming to West Virginia with underground shale deposits are encouraging fracking even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects on drinking water and may adopt nationwide regulations, Bloomberg News reported. In Ohio, some seismologists blame fracking for causing a series of earthquakes that hit the Youngstown region late last year.
“Clearly the battleground is what will happen in New York,” said writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben. “That will do a lot to set the template for what happens not only in other parts of America, but in other parts of the world.”
Faced with environmental concerns, France banned fracking in July 2011, and South Africa followed in August 2011, The Economist reported.
New York state officials received more than 60,000 public comments on a new set of fracking guidelines that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he expects to see ready to implement later this year. It’s likely that those rules, as well as the town-by-town bans over fracking, will be headed to court, said Eric Goldstein, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and member of an advisory committee reviewing the rules.
“The bottom line is that we ought to respect the views of local governments in determining land uses in their communities,” Goldstein said. “You don’t want the oil and gas industry running roughshod over local municipalities.”