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Ohio Fracking Protest

No Fracking In Ohio Parks

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In a surprising move for a polarized Ohio legislature controlled by far-right Republicans cozy with fossil fuel interests, its House Energy and Natural Resources committee voted 12-0 Tuesday to ban fracking in state parks. The full bill, which aims to speed up the drilling permitting process, was then passed unanimously on the House floor Wednesday. It now heads to the Senate. Read more.

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Ted Glick: It’s Time to Seize the Moment and Ratchet Up the Pressure

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For the third time in less than two years, I met yesterday with the chair of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. I was not alone. With me from the “good guys” side were Tracey Eno, leader of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community in Cove Point, Maryland; Jocelyn D’Ambrosio of Earthjustice and; via phone because her plane arrived late due to weather, Sandra Steingraber from href=”http://www.wearesenecalake.com/” target=”_blank”>We Are Seneca Lake.

On the “power” side were FERC chair Cheryl LaFleur and literally eight other FERC staff from various parts of their bureaucracy.

More than 2,000 climate justice activists assembled for a rally and march—in Washington, DC at The National Mall on July 13, 2014—to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in opposition to the expansion of a natural gas transfer and storage facility at Cove Point on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Flicr

My first time meeting with the then-FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff was in May of 2013. The second time was last June with Cheryl LaFleur. In both cases, as was true of this one, the meetings happened after I and others had gone to one of FERC’s monthly commissioners’ meetings and made our presence felt.

A month ago, after going to FERC with representatives of Green America for a meeting they had set up with Commissioner Phillip Moeller, I was “banned,” the security guard’s word, from the FERC building, escorted out of the meeting room on the 11th floor we had been taken to just as the meeting was about to start. However, several hours later, after contacting someone I knew in the press, I got a call from the executive director of FERC apologizing and telling me I was not banned.

The meeting yesterday was requested just before my temporary banishment. It was requested on behalf of Beyond Extreme Energy, which has been ratcheting up the pressure and putting a public spotlight on the many serious problems with the way FERC works. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has called it “a rogue agency.”

What was our hope in requesting the meeting? Our hope, slim as we knew it to be, was that perhaps in the context of a “civilized” sit-down in this way, we could see some signs that the campaign that has been building over the last couple of years to make FERC work for the people and not the fossil fuel industry has had some impact.

There was little sign of that yesterday. After we raised our well-reasoned criticisms of FERC, their rubber-stamping of proposed gas infrastructure expansion projects, their minimal efforts to prioritize wind and solar technologies, they didn’t have much to say. After we pushed it, LaFleur did reference some rule changes they had made to make it easier for those technologies to become part of the electrical grid, and another person did want to know more of our thinking about what they should be doing in the area of renewables. But as Steingraber said afterwards, LaFleur’s main response was to say, in effect, “We’re trying to take it in, we are listening,” little more.

The one exception to this was in the area of FERC’s processes—their website, the meetings they set up and how they deal with administrative appeals after granting a permit for gas infrastructure expansion. There was a bit more, not much, back and forth with FERC staff in these areas. Perhaps, over time, we will see some modifications. Time will tell.

The meeting made crystal clear that we need to sieze the time and ratchet up the pressure. Fortunately, Beyond Extreme Energy is doing so, moving forward with its week-plus of action at FERC from May 21-29. That’s when our growing movement can show our power and speak the truth in powerful ways to those using theirs wrongly. Our children and grandchildren are calling upon us to step it up right now!

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Keystone Bill Ready for Veto: Follow the Money!

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The bill to force the Keystone pipeline through is on its way to President Obama after the House passed the final version, 270-152 yesterday. 29 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Read more.


Safeguard America Resources

Southern Community Groups Call for the Right to Say No to Natural Gas Facilities

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Campaign to Safeguard America’s Resources Today community groups in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia called for the establishment of local veto power over natural gas extraction, transport and use. At rallies, marches and other public events extending from Floyd, Virginia, across North Carolina to Valdosta, Georgia, people joined in a chorus of protests against pipelines, compressor stations, power plants, hydrofracking wells and waste dumps and for the restoration of property rights and local control over energy policy in the Southeast.

Lou Zeller, Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said, “Today we launch the campaign to Safeguard America’s Resources because of our nation’s dangerous reliance on fossil fuel, including natural gas, which pollutes the air and water. But we also see a parallel danger to our communities, to our society and to our democracy from a dominant oil and gas industry.”

At press conferences in county courthouses, community buildings, a university and a small church, League chapters called for action to halt natural gas facilities in their communities. Following the speeches, they joined caravans and parades to focus public opposition at the local government level. Events across the region echoed the twin themes of danger and opportunity.

Kim McCall, Secretary of the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, North Carolina, spoke against hydro-fracking and the expansion of Duke Energy’s natural gas power plant in Hamlet. She said, “We are petitioning local governments for the ability to veto projects that threaten our homes, our families and our neighbors.” The group has petitioned EPA to deny the air permit to increase toxic air pollution by 36% from the combustion turbine electric power plant in her backyard.

To launch their campaign in Lee County, North Carolina, members of EnvironmentaLEE held a prayer vigil and rally at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, which is located in front of the brickyard in Sanford where the dumping 8 million tons of Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash is proposed. Deb Hall, a member of EnvironmentaLEE, said, “We are already ground zero for fracking, and the North Carolina General Assembly stripped local governments of their ability to control fracking and coal ash dumping. This threatens our health, the environment, community self-determination, and property rights.”

Mark Laity-Snyder, a founding member of Preserve Franklin county, joined others carrying black coffins in a caravan to Floyd, Virginia. He said, “We chose a coffin to represent the loss of a basic American right, the right to be secure in our homes without private companies taking our land.” Jenny Chapman, from nearby Preserve Bent Mountain, said, “For a corporation like Mountain Valley Pipeline to override the rights of private citizens to their land, safety and quality of life is unacceptable.”

Pat Hill, co-founder of Person County PRIDE in Roxboro, North Carolina, said, “My husband and I live next to the Republic mega-dump. We want to have a voice in protecting our water and air quality because we live with it every day.” She continued, “The toxic wastes deposited here endanger our health and the health of our neighbors. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead and many other poisons. Because hydrofracking uses secret contaminants, it could have an unknown number of dangerous compounds.”

Michael G. Noll, President of Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy in Valdosta, Georgia, sounded a note of hope, saying, “This is the beginning of a new era, where we see the unified efforts of communities across the nation to safeguard America’s resources, to wean ourselves of fossil fuels, and to protect the unalienable rights of citizens to clean water and air. I am convinced that safe and renewable sources of energy like solar and wind will be the lunar landing of our generation.”

Mara Robbins, Virginia Campaign Coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and organizer of the Floyd March and Demonstration, said, “We chose to have this action here because we stand in solidarity with all the counties that are resisting the threat of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” She pointed to many different communities in three states that are calling for community-level veto power over fossil fuel projects. Referring to her success in pushing the pipeline route out of her home county, she said, “Though Floyd is not in the line of fire at the moment, we claim the right to say NO to dangerous proposals that utilize eminent domain over the wishes of the people. And we think all communities deserve that right.”

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League was founded in 1984. The organization has a thirty-year track record of victories over polluting facilities.

Ohio Govenor Kills Green Energy & NYS Invests

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It was only a short while ago when the Ohio Legislature essential killed all efforts to bring clean green energy and energy use reduction to the state. Ohio Gov. John Kasich dashed the hopes of environmentalists, leading manufacturers and renewable-energy businesses in June when he signed a bill shelving requirements for utilities to ramp up the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Kasich welcomes fracking and other nasty industrial processes to his state while other states are taking a more proactive and protective direction.

Recently, New York Governor Cuomo announced a ban on fracking in NY sighting the many unknown health issues that  have not been addressed and the potential impacts are too great to allow fracking to proceed in the state at this time.

Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said that in other states where fracking is already happening, he found that state health commissioners “weren’t even at the table” when decisions about the process were made.

Zucker add “I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” also noting that he would not live in a community that allows fracking and would not want his children to play in the soil in such a place.

We give the Governor of NY an A+ for his due diligence in protecting the citizens of NY and the Governor of Ohio a big fat red letter F for his lack of caring or concern for the residents of his state.


This January 2015 NYS Governor began pushing for investments in clean green energy.

PA Ban Fracking Now March

Demand What You Want-Not What’s “Feasible”

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Truer words have never been spoken. In CHEJ’s recent training on Lessons Learned from New York State, which recently banned fracking until it can be proven safe, Eric Weltman from Food and Water Watch told the group to demand what you want not what is feasible.

I find it frustrating and a bit troubling when I visit communities who are struggling to protect their health and environment from environmental threats and they ask for less than they deserve and need. When I ask leaders, “why short change themselves,” they often respond saying they don’t want to sound unreasonable or worse because their opponents said it’s too expensive. Leaders and community members are often bullied into believing that they must take less or they won’t get anything. This is just not true.

At Love Canal in 1978, our community was told that government does not evacuate families and purchase homes because of toxic pollution. If we didn’t stick to our goal we would never had been evacuated. When the environmental health and justice movement demanded that no more commercial landfills be built, we were all told it must go somewhere. Several years later up until today no new commercial hazardous wastes landfills have been built, although it is still legal to do so.

In one of CHEJ’s consumer campaigns around a multinational corporation, we were demanding they take certain products off their shelves. The corporations response was, we won’t be bullied by radical environmental group. Yet a short time later they did exactly what we and consumers across the country asked.

No one should ask or accept as the final decision, what is not right and fair. However, winning the big ask is more difficult and demands serious discipline. Everyone needs to be on the same page and demand the same goal. Yes, there are always those few who will say out loud and even in the media that they would be wiling to accept less. Yet if the loud vocal people, the base of the majority, the framers of the campaign stick with their larger goal for justice, they will dominate the campaign. Those with smaller goals will be essential drowned out by the voices and actions of this  larger group.

This was the case in New York State around fracking. There were good people who would have accepted better regulations or only drilling in certain parts of the state. In every issue those working from various groups often have different goals. Sometimes their efforts help build toward the larger goal and other times they may be an irritation. The key to win it all is to build larger stronger, more visible opposition and demand for the larger goals. In this way you can win your goals without publicly fighting with others.

As Eric told us, “we were relentless. With op-eds, press events, using the public participation/comment period to submit a hundred thousands of “comments” that said Ban Fracking Now –not detailed line by line comments about regulations that were proposed. Hundreds of groups participated in bird dogging the governor who couldn’t go anywhere without a group, small or large in his face demanding he ban fracking.”

Secondly, Eric was clear that you need a single target, in NYS it was the governor. “You need to find the person who has the power to give you what you are demanding,” he said. I would add that it always needs to be a person not an entity, like regulatory agency or corporation. You need a human face on your opponent and your messengers to make it all work.

This is a time tested strategy and if you follow it you are more likely to receive a higher level of justice not a compromising solution.

ferc shut down

Heroes Shut Down FERC Meeting

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BXE (Beyond Xtreme Energy) heroes SHUT DOWN the monthly FERC meeting. Kendall Hare spoke for about 5 minutes to FERC commissioners, appealing to their better angels, telling them they could be heroes. She told them they should heed the FERC mission statement, which is to provide SAFE, EFFICIENT, SUSTAINABLE energy for the country. FERC chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur thanked Kendall for her remarks–and said the commissioners were aware of BXE (Beyond Xtreme Energy). Others also spoke and were each told to be quiet or leave. Steve Norris and one of the others tried to raise a banner behind the commissioners but were stopped.  Then FERC commissioners decided they just had to adjourn the meeting.

In the photo are – from left, Paul Sherlock, Jimmy Betts, Steve Norris, Kelsey Erickson, Lee Stewart and Kendall. Herbert Clarke was also there. Herbert said about 15 in all.

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New – and worrisome – contaminants emerge from oil and gas wells

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Researchers find alarming levels of ammonium and iodide in fracking wastewater released into Pennsylvania and West Virginia streams

By Marianne Lavelle

The Daily Climate

Two hazardous chemicals never before known as oil and gas industry pollutants – ammonium and iodide – are being released into Pennsylvania and West Virginia waterways from the booming energy operations of the Marcellus shale, a new study shows.

Treatment plants were never designed to handle these contaminants.

The toxic substances, which can have a devastating impact on fish, ecosystems, and potentially, human health, are extracted from geological formations along with natural gas and oil during both hydraulic fracturing and conventional drilling operations, said Duke University scientists in a study published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

WV drill site-550The chemicals then are making their way into streams and rivers, both accidentally and through deliberate release from treatment plants that were never designed to handle these contaminants, the researchers said.

Implications for stronger regs

The findings have major implications for whether stronger regulations are needed to curb water pollution from fracking and other oil and gas industry operations. Over the years, the industry has faced questions about unsafe well design that allows methane to seep into drinking water, and about lubricants and other chemicals it adds to frack water. Duke researchers have conducted a number of studies on these problems.

Now add to the list of concerns ammonium and iodide – two naturally occurring, dangerous chemicals that are essentially unregulated in oil and gas wastewater.

“We are releasing this wastewater into the environment and it is causing direct contamination and human health risks,” said study co-author Avner Vengosh, professor of water quality and geochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “It should be regulated and it should be stopped. That’s not even science; it’s common sense.”

Steve Everley, spokesman for the oil and natural gas industry group, Energy in Depth, pointed out that a tightening of Pennsylvania regulations in 2011 had ended deliberate discharges of untreated fracking wastewater to the state’s rivers or streams – a point that the Duke study also makes. But some oil and gas wastewater, primarily from conventional drilling sites, is released into waterways after treatment at industrial brine facilities. Also, state records show more than 50 accidental spills of fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania last year, according to the group, Fractracker Alliance.

Nevertheless, Everley said there are already regulations in place to penalize hydraulic fracturing companies that spill wastewater, and the study confuses the issue by lumping them together with conventional producers.

“I’m not sure if the intention was to malign ‘fracking’ by cleverly presenting data on wastewater that doesn’t come from fracking, or if the report was just poorly written,” he said in an email. “In any event, it’s difficult to see how this can provide a meaningful contribution to the public dialogue, seeing how it does more to confuse the public’s understanding of wastewater treatment than anything else.”

Scientists, however, see a serious – and previously unheralded – public health concern.

Fracking’s federal loophole

When dissolved in water, ammonium can turn to ammonia, highly toxic to aquatic life. The Duke team found ammonium levels in streams and rivers from energy industry wastewater outflows at levels 50 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality threshold. Under a loophole created by Congress in a 2005 energy law, fracking wastewater isn’t regulated under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.

Meanwhile, the Duke scientists found that the iodide contamination from energy operations – while not toxic by itself – promotes the production of disinfection byproducts when it comes in contact with the chlorine that is used to treat most drinking water systems. Previous studies have shown that such disinfection byproducts have toxic and carcinogenic properties, but only a few are regulated.

“As far as we are aware, iodide and ammonium are not regulated, nor monitored in any of the [oil and gas] operations in the United States,” the researchers said in their paper.

Increased cancer?

Terrence Collins, director of the Institute for Green Science at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, was not involved in the study but said findings of iodide contamination are particularly worrisome, especially if stream or river water is extracted downstream for drinking water.

“Widely practiced chemical treatments to kill pathogens are likely to cause the iodide to become incorporated into organic matter in the drinking water, and I am concerned that this could result in increased incidences of cancer,” he said in an email.

WV Water sampling-650The recent boom in U.S. oil and gas production has been accompanied by a surge in wastewater production. Fracked wells produce about 1 million to 2 million gallons of wastewater per well. For conventional wells, the volume is less but the risk of contamination with ammonium and iodide is the same. “The method doesn’t matter,” said Vengosh.

“Fracking fluids are not much different from conventional oil and gas wastes,” said Jennifer Harkness, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Duke.

Off to the rivers

The researchers collected and analyzed 44 samples of wastewater produced from conventional oil and gas wells in New York and Pennsylvania and 31 samples of “flowback” – the highly saline and polluted fluid that flows back to the surface during and after fracking – from shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. They also collected and analyzed oil and gas effluents being directly discharged into streams, rivers and surface waters at three disposal sites in Pennsylvania and a spill site in West Virginia.

In states like Texas and Oklahoma, with long histories of conventional drilling, oil and gas wastewater is disposed by injection in deep underground wells. But in Pennsylvania, a hotbed of fracking, there are few such sites. Some oil and gas wastewater is discharged to waterways after treatment at commercially operated industrial brine treatment plants, which were not designed to remove ammonium or iodide.

There also have been wastewater spills, including seeps from illegal disposal, leaking from surface impoundments, and truck tanker accidents. Some states even have purposely spread the salty oil and gas wastewater on roads to suppress dust or for de-icing.

The estimated volume of oil and gas industry wastewater generated in the U.S. is now more than 837 billion gallons (3.18 billion cubic meters) per year. For comparison, that’s nearly three times the volume of all the oil and gasoline that the United States consumes each year (291 billion gallons).

The researchers said their study adds to a growing body of evidence that government action is needed. “There are significant environmental and ecosystem impacts of current [oil and gas wastewater] disposal practices in the U.S.,” they wrote, “Regulatory action is needed to address these concerns.”

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter @mlavelles. The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news site covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Photos: West Virginia unconventional shale drilling site courtesy Avner Vengosh/NSF. Water sampling in West Virginia courtesy U.S. EPA.

Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom

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Based on a work at www.dailyclimate.org

My borrowed wish list for the coming year

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Years ago I found this wish list on One Green Generation webpage.  I saved the list and look at it each year and ask myself, have I made a difference and can I do more?

My Wishes For Change In The New Year:

1. There are wars raging around the world. Palestinians and Israelis are escalating their fight. India and Pakistan are at each other’s throats. All over Africa people are dying from AIDS and other diseases, genocide, war and persecution. There are many severe worldwide human atrocities, and they must change. I can’t fix them on my own. But I can make a difference. And I will.

2. Climate change is the biggest and most everlasting crisis of my time. Entire species are dying in great numbers, impoverished people around the world will be devastated more than they are already, soon this amazingly beautiful and unique planet will become much more chaotic and brutal. So we must significantly alter our personal, political, and corporate lifestyles – because they are not sustainable. This issue is not something to be overwhelmed by, because it is far too imminent to do nothing. We must do all we can to stop the planet from warming. Because we can never go back, and right now we’re losing precious time.

3. There are many root causes of these issues, and I can help change them. Wars happen for a number of reasons, including desperation, deprivation, power, lack of compassion, greed, poverty, a finite energy supply, and naivete or lack of awareness. I will do everything that I can. For instance: I can help spread awareness and provoke action, I can encourage compassion, and I can support people, businesses and NGOs who work toward sustainable energy, redistribute wealth and health and power, and help generate kindness and compassion.

4. On a more personal level, I need to be able to support my family while my husband goes to school in the fall. So the pressure is on me in the next few months to find a way to make money while fostering change. What I find may not be exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life, but it will be a big step in the right direction. Full speed ahead toward finding sustainable work that sustains the world!

5. Of course there are smaller things, too. For instance, I will work to: Spend more quality time with my family, become more compassionate and live more sustainably myself, manage time more efficiently, and learn more about issues and ideas that I want to understand deeply.

It’s time to take myself out of denial, away from the paralysis of thinking that these things are beyond my reach, and that I can’t possibly change the world. I can and I must. Not alone, but with others, I can make a difference. And I will. Now is the time.

Throughout the year I will consult this list. I will work toward each of these wishes, sometimes with big steps and sometimes with baby steps, but always working toward them. In this way I will solve a little bit of the world’s problems this year.

Next year, I will solve a little bit more.

Written by Melinda Briana Epler

fracking tower

These two states had the same basic information about fracking. They made very different decisions

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By Chris Mooney December 22

Workers tap into Marcellus natural gas at an active Hydraulic Fracturing drilling operation outside of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania operated by Shell. (Photo by Brett Carlsen for The Washington Post)

Last week, New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo banned the practice in his state of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — blasting chemical laden water deep beneath the Earth at extreme pressures in order to crack rock and release natural gas. The move followed a report from the New York Department of Health, finding “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes” that may be associated with the technology. It found the science on this question was uncertain but worrisome, and that was enough to put on the brakes.

Yet just a month ago, outgoing Maryland Democratic governor Martin O’Malley decided to let fracking go forward in the western part of his state. This, in turn, was based on a report from Maryland’s departments of Environment and Natural Resources, which concluded that with adequate regulation,”the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.”

So what’s going on here? How can two states comprehensively assess the risks of hydraulic fracturing and then decide on very divergent policies?

Certainly, it’s not that they were looking at radically different science. The reports came out within a month of one another, and given that these are professional state scientific agencies, they probably didn’t miss much of significance to their assessments. And indeed, both reports acknowledge that there are risks from fracking, due to the potential for both water and air contamination — although there is a great deal that we still don’t know about the magnitude of these risks, or the long term effects.

So if the science didn’t divide Maryland and New York, what did? Here are four factors:

The politics. First and most obviously, it is hard not to note that Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is on the way out, to be replaced by a strongly pro-fracking Republican, Larry Hogan. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand,was just reelected, which surely made his decision easier. So a ban on fracking in Maryland would, in all likelihood, have been a top priority for the state’s new governor to reverse. In New York, the political context is totally different.

Which agency did the report. In Maryland, the Environment and Natural Resources departments did the study, whereas in New York it was the Department of Health, observes Stanford’s Rob Jackson, who has published a number of influential studies on the link between fracking and groundwater contamination. “It’s not surprising that a health department would frame the issue differently — and reach a different conclusion,” said Jackson. Environment and natural resources departments are more likely to balance health and environmental risks against economic promise — but health departments primarily worry about protecting people.

Indeed, Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which just released a report of its own on the health risks associated with air emissions from fracking-enhanced drilling, points out that Maryland also did a health-focused report of its own. It was conducted by the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, College Park, on behalf of the state. And that report found that in eight separate areas where fracking could have public health effects, the risks were “high” in four of them, “moderately high” in three, and “low” in only one area (earthquakes): “If you actually look at what the health professionals were saying in the two states, they’re pretty aligned,” says Sinding.

The broader and final Maryland report acknowledged these risks, but nonetheless concluded that “best practices and rigorous monitoring, inspection and enforcement can manage and reduce the risks.”

The amount of land at stake. Let’s face it: Maryland also has less at stake, overall, than New York does, simply because a much smaller area is on the table for drilling and fracking. “The thing is, Maryland has a tiny bit of land in play, where New York has a huge amount of the Marcellus and Utica. So, there is a very big difference in scale,” says Alan Krupnick of Resources for the Future.

A simple look at a map proves the point — we’re only talking about a slice of western Maryland, wedged between West Virginia and Pennsylvania, that’s promising for drilling. Here’s a map from the U.S. Geological Survey of the extent of the Utica Shale (maps of the Marcellus Shale lead to a similar conclusion):

This means the benefits, but also the risks, from fracking loom considerably larger in New York. If ten years from now, more science is in and the health risks look even more severe than they do now, there could be many more people at risk in New York.

The precautionary principle. The starkest difference, though, may be that unlike Maryland’s research, the New York health report pretty clearly hews to an approach known as the “precautionary principle,” which suggests that in the face of inadequate scientific information about risks, it is wise to pause and wait for more data, rather than allow potential harm to occur. The precautionary principle was on full display in a statement by acting New York health department commissioner Howard Zucker, who remarked,

I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.

It is important to recognize that the precautionary principle is not a purely scientific position — nor is it an anti-scientific one. Rather, it represents a risk-aversive orientation towards scientific uncertainty — a conscious decision that unknown risks are too serious to ignore.

That’s why criticisms of New York’s move on “scientific grounds” don’t make much sense. For instance, one blog post at the pro-fracking site Energy in Depth sought to individually critique some of the health-related studies that fed into the New York report. But that’s kind of missing the point: These studies don’t need to be the unassailable “truth” in order for New York to justify its precautionary position. Rather, the state simply needs to be able to point to a body of evidence that, on the whole, raises concern.

Granted, if you were to act in a highly precautionary fashion towards every imaginable risk, nothing would ever happen in the world. A reasonable articulation of the precautionary principle, in contrast, is one in which risks must at least be plausible before they prevent an action — like drilling and fracking — that also has clear economic and other benefits. In this case, though, the risks are plausible, although highly uncertain, notes Stanford’s Rob Jackson. “I do think there’s enough information on the air side and the water side at least to be concerned,” he says — though he emphasizes that there is a great need for longer term health studies, with much larger pools of research subjects.

What all this shows is that these two decisions on fracking, while draped in scientific language, were — in fact — probably not really scientific decisions at all.

Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment.