NEW YORK Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) claimed an ignoble distinction this month: He became the first governor of a state with large deposits of natural gas to ban “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, the controversial but highly productive drilling technique that has reshaped the energy business in the United States. Vocal activists in the Democratic base disagree, but fracking should be well-regulated and legal, not permanently off-limits.
Mr. Cuomo appeared before now to be following Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s path. Both men run states that burn natural gas for electricity and that have gas deposits in economically depressed rural areas. But both have to deal with strong local environmentalist opposition, and both, many assume, have to worry about how their positions will play in a Democratic presidential primary. Both, therefore, ducked the question for years on the pretext that state agencies had to study fracking’s effects.
Mr. O’Malley ultimately decided last month to allow fracking . “The risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level,” an O’Malley administration report found. Mr. O’Malley’s over-aggressive regulatory plan, which was rolled out just before the arrival of a new, pro-drilling governor, might make fracking a practical impossibility for several years at least. But the state nevertheless articulated the principle that fracking is a regulatable industry, and it has begun the hard work of ensuring safety while reaping the benefits.
New York’s leaders disagreed — sort of. State regulators admit they have no proof that fracking has been responsible for many of the harms that motivated them to ban the practice. Fracking done badly is the real concern. Strong rules can and should limit the risks. New York’s outright ban is justified only by extreme caution.
Meanwhile, natural gas produces far more of New York’s electricity than any other source. The gas that runs the state comes from domestic drilling sites, including from fracked wells in next-door Pennsylvania. In other words, whether New Yorkers want it to be so or not, the state is implicated in the fracking business. The benefits of burning the fuel are just too attractive. Tapping massive U.S. natural gas supplies has pushed down prices. Cheap natural gas lowers energy bills. And, compared with the range of serious health and environmental harms that come from burning coal, natural gas’s most immediate substitute, a sensible environmentalist would choose fracked gas any day.
The country can’t burn natural gas indefinitely. It is still a fossil fuel that impacts global carbon dioxide levels. But it can be an important part of a transition to more sustainable fuels.
Fracking’s risks concern water and air contamination. States should control where and how wastewater is disposed of, require robust wells that are resistant to blowouts, demand that drillers prevent methane and volatile organic compounds from escaping into the air and regulate leaks from storage facilities and well sites. States such as Colorado have developed rules with sensitivity both to industry and to environmental concerns. The Obama administration is developing its own, national fracking rules, too. That’s the model to follow — not New York’s.