May 31, 2011

Speculating on a hydrofracking compromise

[I do not have any insider knowledge of conversations in Albany and Washington.]

Over the last few months, I've concluded that our federal and state governments don't seem especially inclined to regulate fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in drilling for oil and gas.

The Obama administration can't seem to say enough good about natural gas, whatever the source, while New York State seems to be shambling toward a July 1 release of the Supplement Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on fracking, with a 30-day comment period and a likely shorter review to follow. Despite the Pennsylvania blowout, it doesn't sound like the Governor is looking for much delay. The Assembly held hearings last week, but I've not heard much from the Senate about moratoriums or bans lately.

The one interesting bit of news I did see, however, was our Republican Senator Seward signing on to Democratic State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer's bill allowing municipalities to handle drilling in zoning. Fellow Republican John Bonacic is also a co-sponsor.

This approach, combined with the regulation likely to be in the SGEIS, opens up some possibilities, though I'm not sure either the gas companies or the environment will feel protected by them:

  • Allowing municipalities to zone out hydrofracking will make it easy for places that obviously don't need the risks of drilling - cities and villages - to ban the practice.

  • Allowing municipalities to permit hydrofracking will make it easy for places that are chomping at the bit for drilling to allow the practice.

  • Places that have a mix of both will continue to have controversies, but at the local level.

In the short run, my guess is that most of the Southern Tier except perhaps the cities and a few towns will support hydrofracking and gripe that the state gets in the way of economic development by regulating it at all. Other areas will be more cautious, especially the more tourism-dependent parts of the Finger Lakes, Cooperstown (if the Baseball Hall of Fame and Chamber of Commerce are an indicator), and, perhaps most difficult of all, the watersheds for New York City and possibly Syracuse and Rochester.

I can't bring myself to say that this is a great idea. I've watched the mining industries' for too long to think they value the environment nearly as much as their advertising claims. I have less and less faith in the federal government's interest in regulating them, especially as the easy oil and gas disappear. And Albany, well... it's probably better thought of as a bazaar than a courtroom.

However, this does seem like a way to break the logjam. I definitely consider it an improvement on having the state start issuing permits while denying municipalities any power to regulate where fracking happens. Some activists - not the most committed, but some - would likely step aside so long as drilling couldn't happen in their own area. It's at least theoretically possible that municipal-level bans would give gas companies working in the open areas an incentive not to spill, because a clean record might encourage more towns to open up to them.

Of course, they might rely instead on recipes of lawyers and pouring money into local elections. The drilling companies, after all, have a relentless focus on extraction, while maintaining local resistance requires a lot of time and energy that won't sustain a business.

Albany could turn a different direction, but while I don't love this compromise, I do suspect it would take pressure off legislators and the Governor - which always seems to be their goal. It feels a classically New York solution combining regulation (understaffed as it may likely be), placing burdens on local government (political instead of financial this time), and nods in the direction of economic development for Upstate New York, however temporary it may be.

We'll see.

Posted by simon at May 31, 2011 6:43 AM in ,
Note on photos