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Editorial: New York's fracking ban the right move for now

Men with Cabot Oil and Gas work on

Men with Cabot Oil and Gas work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site on Jan. 18, 2012 in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. Credit: Getty Images

Nothing about New York's announcement of a ban on hydraulic fracturing is set in stone.

After four long years of controversy and study, during which natural gas prices plummeted and the re-election of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo went off without a hitch, New York's health and environmental commissioners announced Wednesday that no fracking permits will be issued.

For right now, the Cuomo administration made the right call.

Fracking releases natural gas by shooting water and chemicals deep into shale formations. It's legal in many states, including Pennsylvania, but studies on whether it's environmentally harmful have produced conflicting results. Industry proponents say it's safe and environmentalists say it's harmful.

New York has a lot of natural gas trapped in its Marcellus Shale formations, and the state's Southern Tier could use the jobs and revenue that fracking could produce. But even if fracking were approved today, it would not be the panacea people hoped.

For one thing, the need to protect sensitive water sources, as well as a recent court ruling that communities can ban fracking through local zoning laws, means considerably less than 37 percent of the Marcellus Shale in New York could have been opened to drilling, according to state officials.

For another, fossil fuel prices are in free fall, meaning that the economics are not favorable to set up new drilling operations.

Scientists may yet prove that fracking is environmentally safe. If current methods aren't as safe and certain as we'd like, future methods may be better. And the price of natural gas may well rise. Any and all of this could persuade the state and communities that now oppose it to someday allow fracking.

If we wait, the gas will still be there for us. But if we jump the gun, our precious, pristine resources might not be.