Right before Christmas, the Washington Post ran an interesting article you may have missed. It laid out the conundrum of two states coming to very different conclusions about fracking within its boundaries. Both states, New York and Maryland, had moratoriums in place and were evaluating pretty much the same technical and scientific information, yet they came to very different conclusions.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo chose to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in New York State. Fracking is the process of injecting a chemical/water mixture under extreme pressure deep into the earth in order to “fracture” rock and release natural gas (or oil). Cuomo’s decision followed a report from the New York Department of Health that found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking including concerns about water contamination and air pollution. In a press statement, the state health commissioner stated that there was “insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.”
On the other hand, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley decided to allow fracking go forward in the western part of the state. This decision was based on a joint report from the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, which concluded that with adequate regulation, “the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.” Both reports acknowledged that there are risks from fracking, due primarily to groundwater and air contamination, but also that there is a great deal that is not known about the extent of these risks, or the long term effects.
The articles concludes “that these two decisions on fracking, while draped in scientific language, were — in fact — probably not really scientific decisions at all.” Thank you Washington Post for pointing out what grassroots activists have known for years – that most decisions about environmental risks are based on political, economic and other factors, and not on available science, no matter what anyone tells you.
The article goes on to attribute the different decisions to four factors – politics, who did the studies for each state, the amount of land affected and the use of the precautionary principle by one state (NY) and not the other. All these factors liked came into play, but there‘s another factor not mentioned that likely played an even larger role, and that is the role of grassroots activism. In New York, grassroots activists were overwhelmingly opposed to fracking and this position was repeatedly made known to Cuomo and other state decision-makers. Since being elected in 2010 Cuomo could not go anywhere in the state without seeing signs asking him to ban fracking. This message was delivered time after time by numerous groups in New York as well as by celebrities, scientists and others.
The lesson here isn’t that reasonable agencies and state governors came to different decisions based on different evidence and information. It’s that the grassroots activism in New York made a huge difference and helped convince Cuomo and other decision makers in the state that there was enough known about the risks posed by fracking not to move forward and that the unknown risks were too serious to ignore.