Despite New York’s moratorium on natural-gas drilling imposed in 2008, the threat of hydrofracking looms heavy across the state, where I live. I made a trip last weekend to one of the issues’ ground zeroes, near Ithaca and Binghamton, for a glimpse at how the fight against fracking is going.
It was just a 115-mile drive west through softly rolling hills, and while the physical landscape barely changed, man’s footprint did, as rural poverty evidenced itself with each mile of tumbling-down wooden-frame houses and strips of abandoned commercial real estate.
Closing in on the college towns of Ithaca and Binghamton, I started to see a proliferation of “No-Fracking-Way” yard signs and billboards. Nurtured and driven by college students, educated homeowners, and weathered lefties, the struggle over who can drill for natural gas and where is clearly a far bigger issue here than it is in my backyard in the Hudson Valley.
The reason is simple: My backyard, and several nearby counties that run south to New York City, is largely protected from drilling due to its proximity to the watershed that delivers 1.1 billion gallons of clean drinking water to the city each day.
For all his positives, three-term billionaire Mayor Bloomberg—like many politicians, including those dependent on campaign donations from energy companies—has given gas drillers a pass, saying just last week that as long as it’s done outside the watershed “fracking is something on balance that is better for this country than the alternative,” meaning coal.
There is of course a pro-fracking argument. It contends that drilling for natural gas could create up to 600,000 new jobs. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
On a more local level, there are a lot of very poor people living in rural New York who wouldn’t think twice of accepting $1,000 an acre for drilling rights. “They could put the damn thing right in my living room—I wouldn’t care,” said a resident of nearby Pennsylvania.
On Saturday night a couple of thousand motivated people turned out for a rally in Binghamton clearly in fighting mode. Given its proximity to the Pennsylvania border, where drilling for natural gas has already gone awry, contaminating drinking water and rivers, people here are worried about their health, real estate values, and what is still, in many respects, a clean environment.
Two of the more popular people in the room were residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania. One held up a gallon jug filled with what looked like pond scum but was the water he’d poured from his tap. He was offering tastings, as he had to energy department CEOs and department of environment commissioners. Every potential drinker responded with the same, “No, thanks.”
At his side was a ponytailed man in his late 50s whose job with an energy company had been delivering tankers of clean water to communities where drinking water had been contaminated by fracking. When he discovered the company was sending clean water in the same tankers it used to take away bad water—and not cleaning them in between hauls—he quit.
The Pennsylvania contingent’s tales of showers that cause rashes and nausea, drinking water that pours brown from the tap, tanker traffic destroying small county roads, and drill rigs eating up square miles of countryside drew big crowds of eavesdroppers.
“Tales of showers that cause rashes and nausea, drinking water that pours brown from the tap, tanker traffic destroying small county roads, and drill rigs eating up square miles of countryside drew big crowds of eavesdroppers.”
With the statewide moratorium on fracking in New York up for renewal or lifting by the end of 2012, fracking has turned into a community-by-community fight. More than 100 towns in New York state are fighting to adopt local bans, which they hope will keep the fight alive and the gas companies out even if the state lifts the moratorium.
It’s an uphill fight. Even some ardent environmentalists see drilling for natural gas as an inevitability across the U.S., given rising costs of foreign oil, the proven dirtiness of coal, and the riskiness of nuclear. “If done safely, with proper monitoring…” is their mantra. Energy companies claim techniques for naturalgas drilling have improved and that previous problems with fracking were due to “bad” drilling rather than the chemicals used in the process.
Having heard some of the horror stories of natural gas drills gone awry from across the country—it is currently being done in 33 states—my experience at the anti-frack rally in Binghamton was more concerning than positive. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years in Louisiana, where for decades, drilling for oil has taken place largely unmonitored on both land and sea. The place is an environmental mess, and people’s health has been badly damaged (by runoff from wells, poisoned aquifers, chemicals in the air). The smartest people I know in Louisiana, when I tell them I live in upstate New York, are the first to say don’t follow our lead; just say no to fracking.
Case in point: One of the biggest “failures” in natural-gas drilling is apparently the cementing of pipes underground, which if done badly, allows the chemicals used in fracking to escape and mix with groundwater and aquifers. When was the last time we heard of a bad cement job leading to a drilling failure? Think Deepwater Horizon….
One piece of good news: on Monday the New York’s general assembly announced it had asked that a “health impact study” be part of the state’s review of gas drilling, proposed by a representative from Ithaca.The future in New York is largely in the hands of a “fracking” panel put together by Governor Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Its recommendations are expected sometime this year. Meanwhile, environmental groups, New York City commissioners, and the public are “negotiating” outloud as if it’s a matter of when rather than if. For example, NYC’s environmental commission has proposed that if drilling is allowed, none takes place within seven miles of the major aqueducts that deliver water to the city. Debates are ongoing over which towns may benefit from natural-gas drilling bans due to their proximity to NYC’s water delivery lines.
On a more realistic note, later on Monday, I read a positive review in The New York Times of a new, full-size pickup truck that will run on natural gas “once that resource is fully exploited.”