New York State has become the country's most intense battleground in the fight over unconventional natural-gas drilling, known as fracking. Now anti-fracking activists in the Empire State are claiming a victory. They ought to think twice about what they are wishing for.
Those who would ban fracking or regulate it into oblivion ignore the exceptional benefits that inexpensive natural gas can provide in the biggest environmental fight of our time - against climate change.
After four years of review, state regulators opted for another round of public-health analysis before they permit new unconventional wells. More analysis will probably trigger another public-comment period, even though the state has already taken in nearly 80,000 comments.
Why more delay? Among other things, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other officials say that environmentalists have threatened to sue the state if it permits fracking. Cuomo argues that a thorough environmental and health review will make the state's eventual fracking rules more resistant to legal challenges. "Months or years of litigation may be avoided," Cuomo said.
We are in no position to judge what combination of politics and legal judgment pushed New York toward this latest delay, and we're all for making sure that fracking is safe. Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals deep underground to free trapped gas, and it should proceed with due care and proper regulation. The federal Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency have proposed some sensible rules.
But anti-fracking activists who hope delay begets delay and eventually prohibition are doing the environment no favor. Burning natural gas produces only about half the carbon emissions as burning coal, which produced 42 percent of America's electricity in 2011. With the increasingly common use of fracking, natural gas prices have plummeted, encouraging a switch from coal to gas, and the country's emissions trajectory has improved.
True, half the emissions does not mean no emissions. But the United States does not have to eliminate its carbon footprint all at once, nor should it. Doing so would cost far too much. Instead, natural gas can play a big role in transitioning to cleaner energy cheaply.
A recent analysis from Resources for the Future, a think tank, shows that low, fracking-driven natural gas prices combined with efficiency measures and a serious carbon tax would result in a massive increase in the use of natural gas, nearly eliminating America's coal dependence by 2035 and cutting emissions from the electricity sector by more than half.
Renewable technologies, meanwhile, would have time to lower costs and address other hurdles to widespread deployment before picking up more of the load later in the century.
Environmentalists, in other words, should hope fracking is safe - and permitted.