New Concerns Confirm N.Y. Not Ready for Fracking as Comment Period Closes
By Kate Sinding
Used with permission of NRDC - Switchboard
Jan. 11 marks the last official moment for New Yorkers across the state to speak up and have their opinions heard about the current proposal for the expansion of fracking here. The public comment period for the state’s environmental impact study (known by its full name as the revised draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or RDSGEIS) and proposed regulations on fracking is coming to a close.
As the deadline approaches, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is putting the finishing touches on more than 500 pages of detailed technical and legal comments—both from scientific experts and our own expert legal staff—to add to the more than 20,800 comments the state has received so far, and the thousands more expected tomorrow. (A link to our full comments will be made available as soon as they are submitted.)
Although it would be impossible to give a complete rundown of what we will be submitting, I wanted to share just a few of our top-line takeaways.
First and foremost, although there were some notable improvements and it’s clear that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has done some hard work since the last review, there are still significant deficiencies in both the impact study and the regulations, demonstrating that the state is not prepared to move forward with fracking.
The bottom line—when you rush, you make mistakes, and that is exactly what happened here. Not only are critical analyses still missing and/or incomplete, but the decision to release the impact study together with the draft regulations has resulted in many of the proposed mitigation measures getting lost in translation.
Since July, we’ve gathered a team of experts—covering the fields of hydrology, geology, toxicology, petroleum engineering, water quality, air quality, health and others—who have provided an in-depth review and critique of the state’s findings and have likewise confirmed that there are significant parts of the review where the state needs to go back, re-do the review properly, and reissue it for public review and comment.
On top of the issues we have previously identified, this in-depth technical analysis has identified a host of additional deficiencies. Here are just five of our most pressing new concerns, each one of which, on its own, demonstrates that the environmental review process is far from complete:
- There’s no plan at all to deal with toxic wastewater. The wastewater generated from fracking operations is among the worst our expert toxicologist has ever seen. Yet the state has absolutely no plan whatsoever for how the vast amounts of toxic wastewater expected from fracking operations would be managed. We’ve seen the impacts of improper wastewater management elsewhere—including contaminated rivers from treatment in municipal sewage plants in Pennsylvania and earthquakes from improper deep well injection in Ohio—and it is inexcusable for the state not to have some plan in place before allowing new fracking here.
- The scope of the action is too broad. The current version of the impact study and proposed regulations purport not only to address fracking in the Marcellus shale region, but also shale formations such as the much deeper Utica Shale, yet the study only directly looks at the impacts of drilling in the Marcellus. As our experts point out, every shale formation is different, and so are the environmental concerns with developing different regions. Separate shale formations demand their own environmental reviews. Until that happens, drilling in these other formations should be off the table.
- Health risks are omitted entirely. There’s next to zero exploration of the health impacts fracking could have on New Yorkers. Yet it is increasingly recognized that a full health impact assessment is a critical component of a thorough examination of the potential risks of fracking. Just last Thursday, the nation’s top environmental health expert called out the need for comprehensive new analysis of the health risks of fracking.
- Flawed socio-economic analysis doesn’t calculate negative impacts. The state itself has acknowledged that it needs to re-do its socio-economic analysis because of glaring omissions. Most significantly, while overstating potential economic benefits, the report includes only seven pages out of more than 250 on the potential negative economic impacts, when we know that there are real and substantial economic risks associated with fracking.
- Fracking could be allowed in flood zones and other critical vulnerable areas. The analysis fails to consider how the effects of climate change could result in fracking operations taking place in major flood plains, including places that were under water during Hurricane Irene last year. This presents serious pollution risks, particularly as drilling is proposed to occur in and around flood-prone communities.
Over and over, we’ve told the state to slow down, yet the Fracking Express keeps barreling forward. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) rushed to push out the environmental impact study and proposed regulations after only six months in office, and the result is huge gaps in the proposed regulatory program. These are gaps that would make moving forward with new fracking not only dangerous, but contrary to the purpose of the environmental law that requires the study’s creation (the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, aka SEQRA).
We recognize that there is significant pressure from industry to move forward, but taking the time to undertake a complete, legally sufficient consideration of the impacts of fracking is not too much to ask when the risks involved could have grave, lasting—if not permanent—effects on New Yorkers and communities statewide. One needs only to look next-door to Pennsylvania to see that’s true. Fracking is the biggest environmental issue facing New York in a generation, and Gov. Cuomo must stay true to his word that he will not authorize any new fracking unless the risks have been properly and fully evaluated, and necessary safeguards identified and implemented.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>
The Captivity Question<p>Some people defend keeping animals in captivity, arguing that it helps conserve endangered species or offers educational benefits for <a href="http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.574.3479&rep=rep1&type=pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">visitors to zoos and aquariums</a>. These justifications are questionable, particularly for <a href="https://animalstudiesrepository.org/acwp_zoae/8/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">large mammals</a>. As my own research and work by many other scientists shows, caging large mammals and putting them on display is undeniably cruel from a neural perspective. It causes brain damage.</p><p>Public perceptions of captivity are slowly changing, as shown by the reaction to the documentary <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackfish_(film)" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">"Blackfish</a>." For animals that cannot be free, there are well-designed sanctuaries. Several already exist for elephants and other large mammals in <a href="https://www.elephants.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tennessee</a>, <a href="https://globalelephants.org/overview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Brazil</a> and Northern <a href="http://www.pawsweb.org/about_our_sanctuaries.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">California</a>. Others are being developed for large <a href="https://whalesanctuaryproject.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>.</p><p>Perhaps it is not too late for Kiska.</p>
By Tara Lohan
Maybe we can blame COVID-19 for making it hard to hit the streets and gather signatures to get initiatives on state ballots. But this year there are markedly fewer environmental issues up for vote than in 2018.
While the number of initiatives may be down, there's no less at stake. Voters will still have to make decisions about wildlife, renewable energy, oil companies and future elections.
Here's the rundown of what's happening where.
Return of an Apex Predator<p>Wolves are on the ballot in Colorado. <a href="https://leg.colorado.gov/ballots/reintroduction-and-management-gray-wolves" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Proposition 114</a> would require the state's Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan by 2023 for the reintroduction and management of gray wolves (<em>Canis lupus</em>) in areas west of the continental divide.</p><p>Gray wolves once roamed across the western United States but were mostly eradicated by the 1930s. Slowly efforts are being made to bring them back. The reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1996 has been hailed as a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/25/yellowstone-wolf-project-25th-anniversary" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">rewilding success</a>.</p><p>"The argument is that by putting back in wolves — an apex predator that has evolved alongside their prey species — we're putting things back into ecological balance," University of Colorado Boulder ecology professor Joanna Lambert <a href="https://therevelator.org/wolf-reintroduction-colorado/" target="_blank">told <em>The Revelator</em></a> in a February interview about the science behind wolf reintroductions.</p><p>The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Colorado Farm Bureau are two of the top donors to the opposition groups.</p><p>The measure does include compensation for losses of livestock caused by gray wolves.</p><p>"What we're all hoping for is a landscape where we can coexist with the species that were originally here, but also acknowledging that humans need to make a living and that the costs of this initiative will be felt by some folks more than others," Lambert said.</p>
Confusion Over Clean Energy<p>In Nevada voters will take a second swing at a constitutional amendment to require that electric utilities source 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. Voters passed the same measure, <a href="https://www.nvsos.gov/sos/home/showdocument?id=8826" target="_blank">Question 6</a>, in 2018, but state law requires that constitutional amendments be passed in two consecutive even-numbered election years.</p><p>More clean energy for the state may seem good. But there's concern that enshrining 50% renewables by 2030 in the state's constitution isn't that ambitious and it will make it harder to continue the push for 100% renewables in the future. To do that would be another constitutional amendment that would again take four years and two consecutive ballot wins to move the needle.</p><p>Also, the state is already on its way to the same renewable goal.</p><p>A legislative effort to achieve 50% renewables by 2030 — but with a slightly different timeline for the increments to get there — was signed into law in April 2019 by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. Renewable advocates hope the state will do even better than that benchmark, but passing Question 6 would make it harder.</p>
Paying a Fair Share<p>If California's <a href="https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ballot-measures/qualified-ballot-measures/" target="_blank">Proposition 15</a> passes, commercial and industrial properties will need to start paying taxes based on their current market value, instead of paying based on the purchase price from decades prior (which stems from Proposition 13 passed back in 1978). The initiative would exempt agricultural land, small businesses, renters and homeowners.</p><p>Reassessing the worth of large commercial properties could bring in between $7.5 billion and $12 billion a year that would go toward supporting local governments, school districts and community colleges.</p><p>Most of the <a href="https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_15,_Tax_on_Commercial_and_Industrial_Properties_for_Education_and_Local_Government_Funding_Initiative_(2020)" target="_blank">opposition</a> has come from big business and anti-taxation groups.</p><p>The California Teachers Association Issues PAC is the biggest supporter of the effort, but a number of <a href="https://www.yes15.org/endorsers-environment" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">environmental groups</a> have also endorsed the measure, which would likely see oil companies and other big industrial polluters having to kick in more money.</p><p>"The oil industry has used Prop. 13 loopholes to evade tens of millions of dollars in property taxes," <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/victoria-rome/nrdc-announces-support-californias-proposition-15" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote Victoria Lome</a>, California legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Companies like Chevron, Exxon, Phillips 66, Shell and Tosco are paying taxes based on assessments taken prior to 2000. Prop. 15 would end this hidden subsidy to dirty energy."</p><p>Oil companies could stand to lose in Alaska, too. Voters there will weigh in on <a href="https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_Ballot_Measure_1,_North_Slope_Oil_Production_Tax_Increase_Initiative_(2020)" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ballot Measure 1</a>, which would increase taxes on big oil producers (those that have produced more than 400 million barrels overall or 40,000 barrels a day in the past year) operating in three established oil fields in the North Slope.</p>
Taking the Wind Out of the Sails of the Electoral College<p>Colorado's <a href="https://leg.colorado.gov/ballots/adopt-agreement-elect-us-president-national-popular-vote" target="_blank">Proposition 113</a> isn't about environmental issues directly but could cause big shifts in how presidential elections are run and what states and issues are considered important.</p><p>The initiative would add Colorado to the <a href="https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/written-explanation" target="_blank">National Popular Vote Interstate Compact</a>. That effort is aimed at ensuring the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote wins the election. It doesn't eliminate the Electoral College, but it saps its power.</p><p>The compact needs states representing at least 270 Electoral College votes to go into effect. It's currently at 196.</p><p>If Colorado's proposition is passed, and if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact eventually gets enough votes to go into effect, then Colorado's nine electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, not to the one who gets the most votes in Colorado.</p>
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