After giving away a chunk of his personal fortune to the cause of eliminating coal-fired power plants, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is opening his checkbook in support of “responsible” extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing.
In an op-ed article in The Washington Post on Friday, the mayor came out strongly in favor of natural gas extraction through the controversial drilling process, known as fracking, as a way to lower utility bills, spur economic growth and reduce the nation’s dependence on coal. But the mayor said the drilling should take place under “common sense” regulations, to minimize environmental harm.
To “jump start” that effort, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced Friday that it was giving a $6 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to help secure strong rules in 14 states that account for 85 percent of the gas reserves accessible through fracking. Mr. Bloomberg wrote the article with George P. Mitchell, the Texas gas producer who pioneered the technology of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, combined with horizontal drilling, in the 1990s. They wrote that their intention was to promote “the sensible center” in the charged debate over fracking.
But in doing so, Mr. Bloomberg has injected himself into the most polarizing environmental debate facing New York State, at a time when the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is deciding where and how to allow fracking. It is uncertain when a decision will be announced. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the mayor’s position.
But the mayor’s words immediately drew a rebuke from environmentalists, who say no amount of regulation would make fracking safe and are seeking an outright ban on drilling. “He speaks for himself, not the upstate New Yorkers who would be most directly and most immediately affected by fracking,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, one of the most active antifracking groups in the country.
Mayor Bloomberg has long opposed fracturing in or near the city’s watershed in upstate New York, largely in the Catskills, which supplies drinking water to nine million people in the city and nearby counties. The city succeeded in getting the state to agree to a ban in the watershed if fracking is allowed.
Deputy Mayor Caswell F. Holloway said the city had commissioned a study that showed there would be “serious risks” to the water supply if drilling were allowed in the watershed. He said Mr. Bloomberg is advocating that other water supplies be protected as well if they are found to be at similar risk. “When it comes to other water supplies, the mayor is calling for protection of groundwater and restrictions to protect those water supplies,” Mr. Holloway said.
He has consistently supported more domestic use of natural gas as a way to reduce the country’s and the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. His administration is prodding buildings to switch to natural gas — which already supplies 57 percent of the city’s energy — by phasing out the dirtiest home-heating oils, and has backed construction of a just-approved interstate gas pipeline from Staten Island through New Jersey into the West Village in Manhattan.
Last year, Mr. Bloomberg gave $50 million to a Sierra Club campaign to block new coal-fired power plants and eliminate existing ones. Mike Marinello, a spokesman for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said the mayor’s active support for natural gas was a next logical step.
“Fracking for natural gas can be as good for our environment as it is for our economy and our wallets, but only if it’s done responsibly,” Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Mitchell wrote. “The rapid expansion of fracking has invited legitimate concerns about its impact on water, air and climate — concerns that industry has attempted to gloss over.” The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has committed $1.6 million to this effort, with $400,000 going to the Environmental Defense Fund to help institute new or improved regulations in fracking states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, as well as in New York.
Fred Krupp, president of the group, said t “the country is doing a lot of hydrofracking and we have an obligation to make sure that the neighbors and the environment are protected.” They outlined principles for safer extraction, including disclosing all chemicals used in fracking, minimizing water consumption and protecting groundwater, and reducing the impact on roads and ecosystems. Matthew T. Ryan, the mayor of Binghamton, N.Y., which is in Broome County, one of the areas of potential fracking in the state, said he would prefer that his colleague downstate use his money to lobby for a national energy policy that emphasizes renewable energy instead of more fossil fuels.
“His water is protected,” he said of the mayor. “Ours isn’t.”