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OPINION: Don't reject hydraulic fracturing out of hand

Robert Catell, former chairman of National Grid USA, is chairman of the Advanced Energy Center Advisory Board at Stony Brook University and chairman of the New York Energy Policy Institute Advisory Council.

 

Although the massive oil spill in the Gulf has now been capped, the devastation to the region will persist for years. Equally persistent will be the continuing outcry to end our country's oil dependency by developing fresh sources of energy. At the same time, no one should advocate or rush the implementation of new and unproven technology in a hasty response to the turmoil.

I am concerned, however, that just the opposite would occur if the New York State Legislature enacts a proposed extended moratorium on any permits for natural gas drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing, and that a valuable energy resource could be denied to us by unnecessary delay based on incomplete knowledge of the technology.

The drilling would center primarily in the Marcellus Shale, a vast natural gas reserve underneath parts of five states, including the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions of New York.

There are actually two bills on the table in Albany. The first would place an immediate moratorium on new natural gas drilling permits in the state and ban all hydraulic fracturing - even on residential water wells and low-volume natural gas wells. The second would halt all natural gas exploration using the hydraulic fracturing technology until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes a study.

Recent estimates suggest the Marcellus Shale could fulfill the entire nation's natural gas needs for many years. Greatly increased use of domestic natural gas, the cleanest-burning of the fossil fuels, would substantially reduce both energy costs and reliance on external sources over a timeline that could make renewables both efficient and affordable. What's more, natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale could have significant economic benefits to the state and region - with some 280,000 jobs and an additional $6 billion in tax revenues over the next decade.

On the other hand, while we don't know yet what the environmental consequences are likely to be for the sites that may be affected in New York, we do know this hydraulic fracturing technology has been used elsewhere without environmental impact. There have been highly isolated incidents of well-water contamination in some locations, and there are questions about the safety of the water management and disposal. But the industry is well aware of these issues, and knows that they can be handled with proper well design and management of water resources, enforced by state regulations.

Those regulations will be best developed following robust independent analysis, not done by industry. So this extraordinary potential needs to be carefully evaluated.

Policy options should estimate with equal rigor the potential costs - environmental, economic, health-related - and technological challenges, alongside the prospects of reducing those costs, ensuring environmental protection and achieving economic benefits. Based on such a comprehensive and thorough assessment, we can determine how New York can take advantage of this potential resource.

This analysis should be completed promptly without sacrificing comprehensiveness and without taking any assertions at face value. The actions that are pending in the State Legislature make this an urgent and necessary matter, because they would result in an extended moratorium on any natural gas drilling using this technology - even if a state and local analysis determined it were safe.

The New York Energy Policy Institute, headquartered at the Advanced Energy Center at Stony Brook University, can be a vehicle to accomplish such an assessment. For instance, the institute could play a key role in the national study that the EPA has been directed to perform regarding possible relationships between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. And a study focused specifically on local issues would provide valuable information to the regulatory bodies to ensure environmental protection.

Yes, we do need to make informed decisions about the introduction of new technologies that demonstrate great promise of fulfilling important human needs. It is essential that the legislature makes its decision based on reliable facts and impartial analysis.

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