The discovery of the Marcellus shale gas deposits in Pennsylvania and New York has pitted drillers and environmentalists against one another as they proclaim the economic benefits and environmental risks of freeing the natural gas trapped in shale rock 5,000 to 8,000 feet below the surface. Both sides make valid points. That's why it's wise to await the results of a comprehensive study announced last week by the Environmental Protection Agency.
There can be no serious doubt about the economic benefits of exploiting the Marcellus shale. It would create thousands of jobs and help to lower the cost of heating homes and water in the Northeast. New Yorkers would be foolish not to explore how to achieve those benefits.
The dicier problem is on the environmental side. Shale gas is released through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which thousands of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are injected into a gas well to create horizontal and vertical cracks in the shale. Environmentalists fear that fracking could contaminate ground water, while drillers say they have used the process hundreds of thousands of times over decades without polluting aquifers.
That is why the EPA decided to take on the two-year, $1.9 million study, which it promises will be transparent and peer-reviewed, with "significant stakeholder input." Given the dispute and some of the other problems that have occurred with fracking in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it is wise to await the results of that study and for New York to craft reasonable regulations based on those results.
Calvin Tillman thinks so, too. The mayor of Dish, Texas, a small town north of Forth Worth, recently told a New York audience that "If I could do it all over again, I would probably do what New York's doing, and I would frankly just slow things down quite a bit and think about things and make sure that everything was done in a responsible, respectful and safe manner."
Tillman, according to a report in the Patriot-News of Central Pennsylvania, says shale gas drilling brought a lot of wealth and many jobs to his area, but it also polluted the air and water. Would that happen in New York? Maybe not, with this state's environmental laws, but with a full EPA study in the offing and with any risks of long-term problems, we see no public advantage in just plunging ahead.
New York should cast a covetous eye on the gas trapped beneath its surface, but it needs to exercise a degree of self-restraint before going after it.