ALBANY, N.Y. – Handing environmentalists a breakthrough victory, New York plans to prohibit fracking for natural gas because of what regulators say are its unexplored health risks and dubious economic benefits.
New York, which overlies part of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation that has led to a drilling boom in Pennsylvania and other nearby states, has banned shale gas development since 2008, when the state began an environmental review of the drilling technique also known as hydraulic fracturing.
Wednesday's announcement, though not final, means a ban is all but etched in stone.
"Never before has a state with proven gas reserves banned fracking," said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, adding that the decision "will give courage to elected leaders throughout the country and world: Fracking is too dangerous and must not continue."
Industry and its supporters expressed outrage at the decision.
"We are very disappointed that it appears the governor is unwilling to be a leader and is going to pass the buck at the expense of New Yorkers," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
"This technology has been used for over 65 years in the United States. It's been demonstrated repeatedly after drilling millions of wells that we're able to do it while protecting the environment and protecting the people."
Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said Wednesday that he is recommending a ban, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, responded that he would defer to Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on the decision.
The Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, Martens said, and after that he will issue an order prohibiting fracking.
About 30 anti-fracking activists cheered the decision at a rally outside Cuomo's New York City office, chanting "Thank you, Governor Cuomo, for saving our air!" and "New York banned fracking – and next, United States!"
Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized environmental and health reviews that concluded fracking carries risks that haven't been studied enough.
The drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, which also runs under Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure.
The technique has generated tens of billions of dollars in industry profits and landowner royalties, and has reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it has also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation and truck traffic.
Zucker said he had identified "significant public health risks" and "red flag" health issues that require long-term studies before fracking can be called safe. He likened fracking to secondhand smoke, which wasn't fully understood as a health risk until many years of scientific study were done.
Martens noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight, and the large areas that would be off limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections and local prohibitions. Those factors, he said, combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than anticipated.
Even if drilling were allowed in New York, it probably wouldn't take off any time soon because of the uncertainty around regulations and legal challenges and the huge number of promising drilling locations that remain in Pennsylvania, David Spigelmyer, president of the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, said last week.
The Marcellus Shale is enticing to energy companies because of its proximity to the major demand centers of New York City and New England, which is paying more for gas because of delivery constraints. But the regulatory uncertainty remains too high to commit to drilling in New York, Spigelmyer said.
In states where fracking is not yet allowed or is happening but is subject to criticism, New York's move excited some anti-drilling activists.
"The more fracking expands, the more opposition grows," said Sharon Wilson, of the group Earthworks, who has organized anti-fracking activists in Texas, California and Colorado. "Industry is its own worst enemy because they continue to deny the impacts."
Fracking supporters decried the New York move. Karen Moreau, executive director of New York's branch of the American Petroleum Institute, said the Cuomo administration is denying landowners the right to develop their mineral resources.
"The secretary of energy, the U.S. EPA administrator and President Obama recognize the benefits of fracking, and yet the Cuomo administration simply did not want to anger their activist base," Moreau said.
Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition, which represents leaseholders, accused Cuomo of appeasing "environmental extremists" for political gain.
"Is our health department ignoring impacts of other energy options and suggesting that we continue with our reliance on coal and nuclear energy?" Fitzsimmons said. "Did our health department consider the health effects of poverty and unemployment?"
Cuomo said he is expecting lawsuits will be filed "every which way from Sunday."
In California, energy companies have been using a type of fracking to extract oil for many years and are pushing to expand such drilling. Environmental groups hope the New York decision will influence Gov. Jerry Brown, who has largely supported fracking. A scientific study is due to be released next month.
Californians will ask now, "If it's not safe for New Yorkers, why should we think it's safe for us?" said Charles Margulis, with the California branch of the national Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization.