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Two years into fracking ban, use of natural gas rising

Two years ago, the state banned hydrofracking of natural gas within the state’s borders. But a group of Cornell scientists who study the effects of climate change say New Yorkers are using more natural gas than ever. 

In December 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration decided not to allow fracking within New York’s borders. But two years later, scientists and professors from Cornell University say the state’s use of natural gas is on the rise, increasing by 18 percent with more than 500,000 new business and residential customers signing up for gas service.

Bob Howarth is a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell and has studied climate change for three decades.  

“New Yorkers need to wake up,” Howarth said. “We’ve banned fracking, but we’re importing shale gas, and we need to take responsibility for that.”

The gas comes mainly from across the border in Pennsylvania, where fracking is allowed.

While natural gas was once considered a bridge fuel between coal and oil and cleaner renewables like wind and solar, they say new research shows gas contributes to global warming even more than previously believed and is actually a “climate disaster.”

Cornell’s Tony Ingraffea, who co-authored with Howarth a groundbreaking study in 2011 on the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas, said the fracking and burning process does not emit as much carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels, but it does emit methane, which even in small amounts can be equally harmful and contribute to climate change.

“Now we have undoubtedly in the literature proof that methane is not a good bridge fuel,” Ingraffea said. “It’s not good for anything.”

But he said the politicians aren’t listening.

Cuomo’s Public Service Commission has a plan to reduce the state’s electric grid’s reliance on fossil fuels to 50 percent by 2030, with the other half supplied by renewable energy. The plan uses aging nuclear power plants upstate as a partial bridge fuel source. Ingraffea said it’s a start, but the plan does not cut emissions far enough or fast enough.

“New York has ample resources to do a complete transition to renewable energy in our lifetimes,” he said. “And it just takes a little bit more political will.”

A spokesman for the state’s Public Service Commission, which designed the 50 percent renewable by 2030 plan, said the program is “ambitious.” Commission spokesman Jon Sorenson said the plan is so ambitious that the fossil fuel industry has filed a lawsuit against it.

“As much as we would like to, we cannot snap our fingers and build the infrastructure nor find the billions of dollars needed to become 100 percent renewable overnight,” Sorenson said.

According to data from the Public Service Commission, the use of natural gas is trending up, but it is replacing, in many cases, dirtier diesel oil and other fuels.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.