More rational approach for hydrofracking; establish a public utility for hydrofracking

The highly controversial hydraulic fracturing process to produce the abundant natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale areas of New York State presents a conflict between a public good (ability to have natural gas which is better from a climate change and energy security purposes) and a public harm with its many health and safety risks. Some environmental organizations, for example, have been conflicted with some members seeking the public good from hydrofracking while others strongly opposing it because of health and safety risks.

So far most of the attention has been on (1) whether to prohibit use of hydrofracking in sensitive areas like the New York City and Syracuse watershed and public lands like parks and (2) whether state regulation can be adequate to protect again health risks and contamination of water and land resources.

What hasn’t been given much if any attention is whether application of the hydrofracking process should be left to private companies subject to environmental regulation or should the process be treated like a public utility to have a better opportunity to avoid the market driven likely over promised, over built competitive dash to development with danger to public health and distressed ecosystems in their wake.

Simply stated the best intended regulation is not an adequate means to control private entities undertaking an inherently dangerous and threatening activity. First of all, based on historical record it is hard to believe and trust the private energy companies that are lined up to hydrofrack. Remember BP. Its former CEO, Lord Browne sought to re-brand BP as a “green energy company” and talked about moving “beyond petroleum”. At the same time cost cutting led BP to major accidents like the Texas City Refinery explosion. Most recently, BP was a major cause of the oil contamination of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America” by Richard White offers a classic example of how leaving things to the private market results in loosing reasonable restraint. White characterizes the building of the railroads as a competitive dash that caused as much waste and hardship as progress. What has been happening in Pennsylvania and some other states where the door has been open for hydrofracking has been a mad rush to develop. White writes that had the building of the railroads been “slower, more rational development would have lessened the damage to the environment, given Native Americans a chance to adapt to conquest and perhaps saved thousands of lives.”

Instead of adding hydrofracking to the list of industries like gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear energy that have left huge costs and distressed ecosystems in their wake, let us allow hydrofracking only to be undertaken by a state public utility at limited and regulated sites that are identified and well planned for health and safety purposes.

The public utility approach has a history of its own problems and we should not loose sight of that fact. But I would prefer a public utility designed with built in restraints to the land rush likely to happen once the door is open for fracking in New York State, and we are not far from that door being open. Before it is too late, we should be taking a close look at the public utility option.

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