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Editorial: New findings on fracking

Albany Times Union Editorial

Our opinion: Two new reports further our understanding of fracking, but many issues remain.

Two studies released this week suggest that the gas drilling process known as fracking isn’t in itself contaminating groundwater, but sloppy well construction.

While some may see that as a vindication of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, it’s no doubt likely to seem like a distinction without a difference to anyone with polluted drinking water as a result of living near a natural gas well.

That’s not to say these studies have no value in the debate over fracking in New York. They add to our developing understanding of the process, its effects, and how New York might eventually regulate it.

In the first study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined six fracking sites in Pennsylvania and one in Texas where nearby groundwater became contaminated. The second, by U.S. Department of Energy, represents the first time an energy company has allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process and for 18 months afterward.

Thomas H. Darrah, a researcher at Ohio State University who led the study of the Texas and Pennsylvania wells, called the finding — that the culprit was likely leaky wells — good news, because improvements in well integrity can probably eliminate most of the environmental problems associated with gas leaks.

Not so fast.

These findings certainly add to the ongoing studies of drilling’s impacts. But they don’t address all the issues with fracking, including theories among geologists who have linked earthquakes in the Appalachians to the process. Studies on fracking continue in Washington by the Environmental Protection Agency and in Albany by New York state, which is engaged in a broad look at the health impacts of fracking.

Related: Study: Leaky wells, not fracking, taint water

From the narrow perspective of our energy supply, the extraction of vast reserves of natural gas would no doubt be a plus. It could expedite the retirement of many of the nation’s 600-plus coal plants, considerably reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many see natural gas as a cleaner bridge from fossil fuels to renewables like wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

But fracking — the entire process, which includes well construction — needs to be clean and safe. The state and EPA should continue their studies, and not be pressured by gas industry lobbyists, landowners anxious for royalties, and other advocates.

Fracking also needs to be adequately monitored, which would require significant oversight by the already-stretched state Department of Environmental Conservation. There are also costs that will linger after the wells run dry — land restoration, ongoing well and groundwater monitoring, and possibly repairs, cleanups, and other potential liabilities for delayed impacts down the road.

Footing the bill for this must fall on the natural gas industry. Taxpayers should not have to help gas companies get rich.


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