Why is New York City’s air getting cleaner?

Several weeks ago, this was the headline for a press release: Mayor Bloomberg announces New York City’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years. That’s quite a claim. Most media outlets reporting this story cut…

Several weeks ago, this was the headline for a press release:
Mayor Bloomberg announces New York City’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years.
That’s quite a claim. Most media outlets reporting this story cut and pasted from the press release; few bothered to delve into the report Bloomberg was citing, much less provide any meaningful perspective on its findings. I asked students in my urban environmental journalism class at CUNY to look beyond the headlines and place the story in a larger context. Below are their dispatches.
New Yorkers are Breathing Cleaner Air Because of Natural Gas

New York City is a cleaner place to live because of fracking.
Or at least a recent report from the Bloomberg Administration seems to indicate this. The mayor touted results from a fairly new city program called Clean Heat, which at its inception in 2011 required buildings “to convert from heavy forms of heating oil to cleaner fuels.” Mostly, that turned out to be natural gas.

Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability goals involve supporting a ban on hydrofracking in the West of Hudson watershed in Upstate New York.

Bloomberg’s air quality and energy goals in the PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan rely heavily on nuclear power and natural gas. This puts him at odds with environmentalists and contradicts the water quality part of the plan, which  identifies fracking as a threat to the city’s watershed in the Catskill region. These divergent objectives saw Bloomberg advocate for a ban on fracking in the city’s watershed while supporting the expansion of pipelines that would bring gas into the city  from fracked shale in Pennsylvania.
This split approach to natural gas (all the goods but no impacts) rankles anti-fracking activists that oppose the interstate gas lines being built under the Hudson River and the Rockaway Peninsula. Eric Walton, a member of Occupy the Pipeline, says in an email:
Of course we want clean air here in New York City but we see no reason that our clean air should be obtained at the expense of clean air and water in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states where fracking is destroying the land, polluting the air, and poisoning the water. That trade-off is both immoral and unnecessary.
There’s a reason why Bloomberg seems conflicted about natural gas.  He commissioned a 2009 report that led him to believe fracking posed too great a risk to the West of Hudson watershed, a major source of New York City’s drinking water. He cited the study when telling the Delaware River Basin Commission in 2010 that he couldn’t allow drilling in the Delaware headwaters, which is also part of the watershed.
The Mayor later donated $6 million to the Environmental Defense Fund (which helped conceive the Clean Heat program), for an initiative that aims to improve gas drilling standards.
What the mayor and allies didn’t say when he released the report on NYC’s improved air quality is that while NYC Clean Heat is a local victory–saving a projected 800 lives a year –a broader battle over natural gas is still brewing .