The precautionary principle and the science behind the New York hydraulic fracturing ban

Last week’s decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas development has sent shock waves throughout the country. It is the first time a state government has issued a ban on fracking based on the recognition that there is no proof that fracking is safe for its residents.

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo

The implications are substantial, ranging from the economic impact on the oil and gas industry and on individuals to the public health impacts of fracking to public attitudes regarding the safety of fracking.

Substantial scientific work underlies Governor Cuomo’s decision. Last week three important studies were released on the public health impacts fracking. I’ve posted them here and recommend that you read them if you’re really interested in understanding the state of scientific evidence on fracking and health.

A political decision based on the precautionary principle
But it’s very important to understand that there is still no “smoking gun” linking fracking to negative health impacts. Governor Cuomo’s decision was less a scientific decision than a political one.

You might recall that a couple of months ago I wrote about the “precautionary principle,” which says that if an action is suspected of causing harm to the environment or human health, then, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on the individual or organization taking the action.

The precautionary principle underlies the conflict between the oil and gas industry and local citizens in every community where fracking exists or is planned. Citizens believe there is ample evidence that suggests fracking causes health problems and should be banned or strictly regulated. The oil and gas industry rejects the principle, demanding proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that fracking is harmful before regulation should take place. They fight tooth and nail against any regulation of their industry, and have succeeded in creating significant exemptions in most federal environmental legislation.

Dr. Howard Zucker

Dr. Howard Zucker

So what Governor Cuomo did in New York, supported by a thorough review of scientific evidence, was act on the precautionary principle. As Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s Acting Commissioner of the Department of Health, put it:

“I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”

What the scientific evidence says
But the fact that there is no smoking gun does not mean the scientific evidence isn’t compelling. It is. We have been reporting on this evidence on this site for a year, and the implications of the research are powerful.

Last week three reviews of scientific research on the health impacts of fracking were released in New York.

Click to read the full study

Click to read the full study

New York Department of Health review
The first was a public health review of the public health impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) conducted by the New York Department of Public Health. This document was informed by the other two reviews, which are discussed below.

You can read the Department of Helath review by clicking on the graphic at right.

The study itself invokes the precautionary principle:

“As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of HVHF on public health is unlikely to ever be attained. In this instance, however, the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to
public health from HVHF to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State.”

The review found enough evidence to say that all of the following are “potentially associated” with HVHF:

  • Air impacts that could affect respiratory health due to increased levels of
    particulate matter, diesel exhaust, or volatile organic chemicals.
  • Climate change impacts due to methane and other volatile organic chemical
    releases to the atmosphere.
  • Drinking water impacts from underground migration of methane and/or fracking
    chemicals associated with faulty well construction.
  • Surface spills potentially resulting in soil and water contamination.
  • Surface-water contamination resulting from inadequate wastewater treatment.
  • Earthquakes induced during fracturing.
  • Community impacts associated with boom-town economic effects such as
    increased vehicle traffic, road damage, noise, odor complaints, increased demand for housing, and medical care, and stress

You can search on all these topics on this blog and find extensive evidence that documents their relationship to oil and gas drilling.

Click to download complete study

Click to download complete study

Physicians, Scientists and Engineers Healthy Energy Literature Review
The second literature review published last week was an analysis of peer-reviewed scientific research on the health impacts of fracking by PSE Healthy Energy, a collaborative of science professionals that provides a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying “reasonable, healthy, and sustainable energy options for everyone.”

  • 96% of all papers published on health impacts indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 87% of original research studies published on health outcomes indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 95% of all original research studies on air quality indicate elevated concentrations of air pollutants.
  • 72% of original research studies on water quality indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.
  • There is an ongoing expansion in the number of peer-reviewed publications on the impacts of shale and tight gas development: approximately 73% of all available scientific peer-reviewed papers have been published in the past 24 months, with a current average of one paper published each day.

Now go back and look at these percentages. There may be no smoking gun, but the evidence is extremely compelling.

Click to download compendium

Click to download compendium

Concerned Health Professionals of New York Compendium
The third study released last week is the second compendium of scientific and medical findings by an alliance of health professionals called the Concerned Health Professionals of New York.

You can download the compendium by clicking on the graphic at right. We reported on the first compendium here.

The compendium provides a list of studies that demonstrate many health issues related to fracking, including

  • Air pollution
  • Water contamination
  • Inherent engineering problems that worsen with time
  • Radioactive releases
  • Occupational health and safety hazards
  • Noise pollution, light pollution, and stress
  • Earthquake and seismic activity
  • Abandoned and active oil and natural gas wells as pathways for gas and fluid
  • Flood risks
  • Threats to agriculture and soil quality
  • Threats to the climate system
  • Inaccurate jobs claims, increased crime rates, and threats to property value and
  • Inflated estimates of oil and gas reserves and profitability
  • Serious risk to investors

You can go to the compendium and see a list of studies that document each of these issues.


The oil and gas industry loves to portray those of us who have concerns about fracking as wide-eyed idealists who have no understanding of how their industry work. The science tells you otherwise.

PSE Database of scientific studies, grouped by topic
First compendium of Alliance of New York Health Professionals
Posts on this blog about the health impacts of oil and gas drilling

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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6 Responses to The precautionary principle and the science behind the New York hydraulic fracturing ban

  1. Dennis Hoyem says:

    Your research on research is invaluable and gets to the heart of the matter. Also, Wikipedia’s definition of the “precautionary principle” is right on–great advice to lawmakers (and everyone else). It is heartening to realize that many great minds (in lawmaking capacities) understand, accept and apply the principle. Many more need to.

    I’m sorry Cuomo doesn’t recognize the fracking smoking gun, but then again maybe there are no correlations between:
    – smoking and lung cancer
    – diet/exercise and health
    – breathing and life

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