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New York's Fracking Phobia

The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com January 2, 2013  Review and Outlook

Most Americans by now know about the natural gas revolution and its potential. It's become possible through a process called hydraulic fracturing, whereby water and chemicals are used to force previously unrecoverable deposits from shale rock. The technology is bringing new wealth to workers in many states. Except New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo seems content to let the people in the depressed counties of upstate New York watch the rest of the country benefit from fracking.

The state's Department of Environmental Protection is expected to finish an environmental review in February and perhaps issue drilling regulations by the end of that month. Theoretically this would end a four-year moratorium on fracking.

But Mr. Cuomo said recently that he'll have to await word from a newly appointed health review board. His appointees are being cheered by drilling critics, perhaps because they have previously criticized the health risks of fracking. The process of delays gives the strong impression that Mr. Cuomo is looking for a pretext to keep the ban in place. Fracking opponents have vowed to mount legal challenges to any regulatory green light, and the industry is now saying 2013 looks like it will be a lost year in New York.

Fracking was a major issue last year in local elections upstate, where candidates in favor of it trounced those opposed. We doubt residents of these areas are eager for an environmental catastrophe. They've observed that the alleged risks of fracking—such as groundwater contamination—haven't happened as shale drilling boomed in nearby Pennsylvania.

The larger irony is that, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Cuomo is now talking up the risks of climate change. Big-city greens are urging him to spend tens of billions of dollars on levees and other barriers as protection against rising seas. But if the Governor really believes carbon emissions are a major threat, the biggest contribution Mr. Cuomo could make would be to allow fracking.

The more U.S. power plants burn natural gas instead of coal, the less particulate pollution and carbon dioxide are put into the atmosphere. Burning coal puts out about twice the amount of carbon dioxide per raw unit of energy generated. This is simple chemistry based on the hydrogen- carbon ratio of the two energy sources. Add in better turbine technology at newer natural-gas power plants and the efficiency gain is even greater, according to the International Energy Agency.

Last year the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported a remarkable fact: Overall U.S. carbon dioxide emissions—the majority of which come from electricity generation—had fallen to their lowest level in 20 years, some 14% off the peak in 2007. There are upwards of 50 million more energy consumers in the U.S. than there were 20 years ago, so the achievement is all the more impressive.

This didn't happen with command-and-control regulation. Nor have the European countries who signed up to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change made such progress. Their strategy of channeling taxpayer subsidies to wind and solar power has achieved about half the per-capita carbon emissions reduction. U.S. emissions are lower because utilities have responded to the market incentive of cheaper natural gas.

Mr. Cuomo is surely aware of all this. For now the Governor's political read looks to be that New York's upstate economy can sit hostage to the antigrowth energy agenda of wealthy downstate environmentalists.

A version of this article appeared January 2, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: New York's Fracking Phobia.

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