Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is the practice of extracting oil and gas from shale located thousands of feet beneath the surface by pumping down water, chemicals and sand. While hydrofracking would not actually take place in Westchester or Putnam counties, this contentious issue has become the centerpiece in Democratic candidate Justin Wagner’s campaign for the New York State Senate seat for the 40th District.

In adjacent Putnam and Dutchess counties, the threat comes from the runoff and possible groundwater contamination produced by hydrofracking in upstate communities, mainly north of Albany. After the mixture of water, chemicals and sand fractures the shale and releases the gas, it can seep into and contaminate the aquifer.

Protecting the environment is at the core of Wagner’s campaign. “Everyone needs to pick something they care about and be active in it,” said Wagner, a 31-year-old lawyer who drives a hybrid to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions.

Wagner grew up in the Hudson Valley and the 40th District for which he is running comprises parts of Westchester and Dutchess counties and all of Putnam County.

Running for State Senate was not originally in the plan. “I’ve always been involved in community service and political affairs, but this is not something I’ve been mapping out,” Wagner said. He decided to toss his hat into the ring when he saw that Greg Ball, with the support of the Tea Party, had been elected to represent the 40th District. Wagner believes that Ball’s approach in regards to women’s rights, gun laws, and the environment is too far out of the mainstream ideals of Hudson Valley voters. With the main environmental debate being about hydrofracking, Wagner has drawn a clear line between himself and the incumbent Ball, who is calling for only a moratorium on hydrofracking that would expire in June 2013. Wagner doesn’t think that is sufficient.

A lawyer for Weil, Gotshal, and Manges LLP, Wagner has come under fire from opponents for working for a big law firm, which serves clients such as ESPN Inc. and The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. One campaign bulletin mailed out by the New York Republican State Committee claimed his firm defends “New York’s worst polluters and fracking companies,” even “rushing to the side of BP to defend them” in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

At a recent town-hall style debate in Mahopac, Ball went so far as to accuse Wagner’s firm of defending terrorists. The statement elicited laughter and boos from the crowd of 60 residents, and Wagner quickly interjected. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard tonight,” he said, chuckling.

On Sept. 12, when Wagner and Democratic Senator Tony Avella of Queens held a press conference at Riverfront Green Park in Peekskill, Wagner voiced his support for Avella’s S4220 bill, which aims to “prohibit the use of hydraulic fracturing in the process of drilling for natural gas and/or oil,” the key words being, “in the process of.” Wagner supports a ban on hydrofracking, but is not against natural gas exploration in the U.S.

Wagner proposes giving the state Department of Environmental Conservation more power, saying that if hydrofracking were to occur, the DEC needs to be “beefed up” to be able to sufficiently regulate it. “The state is certainly entitled to know what is going into the chemical cocktail that goes into the ground,” he said.

He believes that the state is moving in the right direction by commissioning a new public health study ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We should be looking at experiences in bordering states as well, like in Pennsylvania,” he said. “The Marcellus Shale runs right on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Some of that data is not so positive when it comes to shale.” The Marcellus Shale deposit, where the New York fracking would occur, runs from upstate and western New York, through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia. Pennsylvania has already seen extensive fracking, with more than 350,000 wells drilled.

The Green Party and New York League of Conservation Voters have endorsed Wagner, but he still faces an uphill battle in the race. New York State Board of Elections records show that since 1998, voters in the 40th District have elected Republicans to the State Senate seat, and even if Wagner were to buck that trend, it would not be an automatic guarantee of new environmental legislation. The State Senate is made up of a majority of Republicans. But he remains optimistic. “My race would get us one seat closer to reaching a majority,” he said. “I think if we can get back a majority we can enact legislation to keep New York green.”