Big change in a New York minute

When it comes to statements on fracking by elected officials, my motto is usually “stunning but not surprising.” Yesterday, that was replaced by “surprising and stunningly amazing”—thanks to New York Governor Cuomo’s decision to prohibit shale gas drilling in the state. 

In the lead-up to the announcement at a cabinet meeting—which  dropped the jaws of even the most ardent frack watchers—Cuomo reiterated his longstanding position: the science and experts, not “emotion,” would rule the day. He then passed the baton to Joe Martens, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who summed up the clear facts: any presumed benefits from jobs and revenue generated by drilling would be limited—and far outweighed by the serious threats to water and air quality. 

Then Howard Zucker, Commissioner of the state Department of Health (DOH), weighed in with findings from the long-anticipated health impacts review, which will now be integrated into DEC's final assessment. His conclusion of extensive research and analysis was straightforward and heartfelt: “Would I let my child play in a school field near [fracking]? The answer is no.” To which Governor Cuomo responded, “If you wouldn’t want your children to live near fracking, no one’s children should have to.” 

That’s exactly right. As residents nationwide forced to live on the frontlines of fracking told Earthworks, New York’s decision is courageous, welcome, and exciting—in large part because it just might make decisionmakers in other states realize that they, too, must take action to prevent more communities from becoming energy sacrifice zones. 

Six years ago when New York began its legally mandated environmental impact review on shale gas development, there were few studies on environmental and health effects. Now hundreds of studies and, tragically, ever-increasing reports of pollution and health problems, show that fracking harms air, water, and people. In that time, well-founded concern and opposition to fracking has surged. And now—for the first time nationwide and after years of health departments being absent from the fracking debate—a state's top official has examined the evidence and said NO.

Governor Cuomo, DEC, and DOH have shown true leadership in demonstrating that even in the face of industry pressure, it is possible to put science and the precautionary principle before politics and profits. Such an approach will surely benefit New Yorkers—and before too long, if other Governors and President Obama are listening, everyone else as well.