This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo indefinitely extended his state's moratorium on fracking, citing health concerns about the practice.
The move is unprecedented, because it's the first time a governor whose state sits on significant shale reserves has acknowledged what scientists have long been saying: That there still aren't enough studies of fracking's impact to make informed decisions about whether it is safe or not.
"I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done," New York Health Department chief Howard Zucker said. "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."
"It's not surprising that they concluded that they don't have enough information, when we have effectively no information on the direct human health consequences associated with fracking," said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford who has conducted some of the first limited studies on water quality in Pennsylvania's gas country..
But other U.S. governors whose states have been grappling with fracking are swatting away New York’s decision.
In Colorado, where measures to ban fracking just missed ending up as November ballot initiatives, Gov. John Hickenlooper said each state must choose its own path.
"Colorado is not New York,” he said.
He also referenced the task force he created to see how to best regulate fracking. The group is not expected to recommend banning it.
In Pennsylvania, the epicenter of America’s shale gas boom, Governor-elect Tom Wolf told NPR that New York’s decision was “unfortunate” and that fracking can be done safely.
“I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I don’t want to do what New York did,” he said. “I want to do what I think we can do here in Pennsylvania and that is have this industry, but do it right from an environmental point of view, from a health point of view.”
There’s an outside chance California takes notice. A rep (is it a spokesman? for California Gov. Jerry Brown said the state is conducting its own study on fracking’s health impacts. Two counties in the state just approved local fracking bans.
“We are going to let the independent science review inform and lead any additional regulatory actions or changes on hydraulic fracturing,” Richard Stapler said in an email. The findings are expected to be released the first week of the new year.
But Stapler also noted that New York only banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing but would continue to allow low-volume, isolated fracking, and that for now high-volume fracking remains quite rare in California.
Jackson said that other heavily fracked states, like Texas and North Dakota, are too far down the road to make much of New York’s decision.
“[They] have decided that the practice of hydraulic fracturing is well-enough known, or that they’ve practiced it for long enough, and that the economic benefits outweigh the potential risks.”
Instead, Jackson said the Empire State’s announcement may end up finding its greatest resonance abroad.
“There are lots of other countries who haven’t started [fracking] yet, Jackson said. "I think this is a much bigger issue outside the U.S. than inside.”
Right now, a host of different countries with large shale reserves are discussing whether to allow fracking to move forward. It wasn’t immediately clear how leaders in those countries were reacting to Cuomo’s decision.
But it is being reported worldwide.
The main anti-fracking group in Mexico, where shale reserves rival those of Canada, praised Gov. Cuomo’s decision.
“The same risks that exist in New York exist around the world,” the Alianza Mexico Ccontra? el Fracking said. “Governments that prohibit fracking have demonstrated responsibility toward present and future generations. We again urge our elected officials to take the same road.”
In Germany, some sustainability organizations greeted the news with relief. While the country suspended fracking in July, new laws have been proposed that would allow the practice under certain circumstances.
“US oil and gas companies continue to put massive pressure on Germany,” one German-language green energy group said. “The news from New York is positive."
No amount of studies will ever sway those who’ve dug in on either side of the debate, Jackson said.
But current data remains so scant that it is essential to press forward. Most existing studies, he said, have only been able to look at regional air and water quality, with no focus on individual health impacts.
"One of the things may prompt [states like Colorado] to pause is a body of research on human health effects," he said. "We’re still lacking that knowledge."