A consensus seems to be forming around the subject of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial drilling procedure for extracting natural gas. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has given its conditional imprimatur to the technique, an Obama administration panel has given its qualified support and a majority of upstate New Yorkers approved of it in a recent poll. Generally speaking, those supporters seem to have it about right.
Hydrofracking -- or fracking, as it is called -- involves pumping vast quantities of water, combined with sand and chemicals, into Marcellus Shale formations to push out the natural gas trapped a mile or so below the surface. Hydrofracking has been used on a smaller scale in the state using vertical wells. But to reach the Marcellus Shale, the new wells proposed for parts of upstate New York, particularly the eastern Southern Tier, would use horizontal fracturing. That technique requires significantly more fluid than the vertical wells and raises the potential for environmental damage. The payoff is that a horizontal well can produce far more natural gas than a vertical well.
New York has been appropriately cautious about embracing the technique, with reports of accidents and pollution in other states where horizontal fracturing is under way, including Pennsylvania. This summer, though, the state DEC produced a plan to closely regulate fracking in New York.
The DEC would prohibit drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as well as on state-owned land, including parks, forests and wildlife-management areas. The DEC rules would give the drilling industry access to about 85 percent of the state's Marcellus Shale, where geologists say large amounts of natural gas are trapped.
Although there is some risk to the environment, economic development and jobs are at stake. Hydraulic fracturing could produce thousands of jobs in New York, industry leaders say, and also help to restrain the costs of natural gas, a clean-burning fuel.
For these reasons, upstaters support hydrofracking. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that 51 percent of upstaters back the practice, while 39 percent are opposed. Even statewide, supporters outnumber opponents, 47 percent to 42 percent.
A lot has been on the line in this debate, but it is fair to say that backers are making a plausible case to go forward. That's not to say that hydraulic fracturing is inherently or completely safe, but that enough safeguards are being established to lessen the risk and, in doing so, make the case to tap an economically powerful resource.