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Editorial: Still too early to say OK to fracking

Oneonta Daily Star Editorial

The story goes that when then-President Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, a noted historian, was asked about the effects of the 1789 French Revolution.

“Too early to say,” was his response.

It turned out that Zhou probably misunderstood the question, but his answer lives on as a cautionary tale to those who might draw too quick a conclusion about things.

Toward that end, we learned with great interest that researchers are studying whether communities in Pennsylvania involved in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale area are financially better off after six years than those in New York state, where hydrofracking remains forbidden.

According to the Associated Press, the research will compare government-collected data about crime, schools, economics, childhood obesity, teen pregnancy and general state tax records on royalty income.

The study, which will take about a year, “stands a good chance of revealing something useful,” Gordon Dahl, a professor of economics at the University of California-San Diego, told the AP.

Well, we hope so, but we’re a little dubious about whether six years is “too early to say.”

Related: Pot use, fracking divides New York

The long-range effects on roads, health and quality of life could take much longer to determine. Also, what happens to the economy and community once the natural gas has been taken out of the ground and the drillers have departed?

We are concerned by two stories last week involving fracking sites. Bloomberg News reported that preliminary findings of research show that babies born near wells in Pennsylvania, Utah and Colorado have a higher risk of health problems.

Low birth weights, increased numbers of stillbirths and congenital heart defects were reported, but again, we emphasize that these are preliminary studies that have not been subject to peer scrutiny or the test of time.

The second story — by the Associated Press — was more conclusive. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection released details of 243 cases in which companies prospecting for oil or gas in the Marcellus Shale area contaminated private drinking water wells.

The problems include methane gas contamination, spills of wastewater and other pollutants, and wells that went dry or where their water became undrinkable.

There is no more contentious issue in our area than whether horizontal fracking should be permitted. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have come under a lot of fire for delaying a recommendation until after the November elections.

While Cuomo’s reasons may be overwhelmingly political, we find ourselves in no rush to join North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states that have to deal with fracking’s uncertain effects on health, the economy and the environment.

As far as we are concerned, it’s still “too early to say.”

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