Fracking facilitates a coal-to-gas switch

Andrew Cuomo. (Governor Andrew Cuomo)
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ALBANY—Even though Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday announced that a coal-burning power plant in Western New York would now be converted to natural gas, he insisted it had nothing to do with his long-delayed decision on whether to permit fracking in New York.

“Those are two totally separate questions and decisions,” Cuomo said Monday. “Do we burn natural gas? Yes, and we have for a very long time and we continue to burn natural gas and that has nothing to do with any decision on fracking.”

But the $150 million repowering of the Dunkirk plant is more than just a local redevelopment project that will save jobs and the town's tax base. It's also a demonstration of the impact of fracked gas, which is increasingly flowing here from nearby states.

Cheap natural gas prices, largely a result of increased fracking in other states, are pushing down energy prices and squeezing out coal and even nuclear as energy sources.

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Fracked gas has already spread throughout the state and and is being used to heat homes and other residential needs. A new pipeline recently connected to New York City brings in natural gas obtained by fracking in other states and has the capacity to heat 2 million homes a day. In the last year, 1,100 large buildings have switched to natural gas from oil.

It's impossible to say exactly how much of the gas now used in New York comes from fracking because it is mixed in with gas from other sources including the Gulf of Mexico, National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said. But it's inarguable that the energy grid is becoming more reliant on gas fracked in other states. He said bills across some upstate communities have been reduced as a result of abundant domestic energy supply.

Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association, said people across the state have been using gas obtained from horizontal hydraulic high-volume fracturing wells in other states for years. 

“It's the people that are screaming against fracking that are using it every day,” he said.

High-volume hydraulic fracturing, which uses water, sand and chemicals to force chemicals out of rock, is currently banned in the state as part of a five-year-old moratorium.

Cuomo said on Monday that a decision to allow or ban fracking may not come before Election Day 2014, as he previously promised. He said it was too important to rush and that he would wait for Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to weigh in on whether or not it is safe.

“I don’t want to put any undue pressure on them that would artificially abbreviate what they’re doing,” he said.