10 Trends of Hope for Our One Ocean

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ocean’s future when you scroll through the headlines: Overfishing has decimated fish populations around the world; beaches are thick with plastic; carbon dioxide dumped into the ocean by the burning of fossil fuels is killing off coral reefs; water temperatures around the globe are rising; etc., etc., etc.

Maybe it’s because things have begun to look so dire that there is a renewed concern and interest in all things ocean lately, ranging from economic symposiums and new laws to entrepreneurial investments and a public-awareness boom.

I was nudged last week to think about a variety of good ocean news after reading a post by Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. He had just attended a couple of big think tanks on ocean issues—at the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore—and was moved by how ocean issues seem to have been pushed to the top of a variety of agendas.

““Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude…””

“In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans,” Seligmann wrote. “Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.”

With Seligmann’s words as a jumpstart, here are 10 reasons for hope for the planet’s one ocean:

1) JAMES CAMERON’S DEEPSEA CHALLENGER

Filmmaker and undersea explorer James Cameron’s solo drive to the deepest void in the ocean in his chartreuse Deepsea Challenger garnered praise from his peers as well as billions of Internet eyeballs for both its success and innovation. Since 1960, 22 people have walked on the moon; only three people have gone that deep. Given that 90 percent of the ocean is still barely explored, there’s a lot of underwater territory to map out, and Cameron has made it seem exciting. His success will soon be hopefully emulated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, which the entrepreneur activist intends to pilot to the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean before the end of 2012.

2) TARGETING SPECIFIC FIXES WITH THE OCEAN HEALTH INDEX

One thing that has made fixing what’s wrong with the ocean so tricky is that all that water has always seemed massive and uncontrollable, a giant waste dump that will take care of itself without our help. Clearly that’s not true. Conservation International’s soon-to-be-released Ocean Health Index should help governments and businessmen focus on specific fixes, region by region, which will help both ocean health and the economies of the people who live and depend on it. Its scientists have assessed the waters off 172 countries, measuring ten factors—from climate change and acidification to human well-being and conservation plans—in order to come up with numerical rankings to help decide what are the biggest needs and best fixes for that particular corner of the ocean.

3) NEW SPECIES FOUND!

Similarly, for 10 years 2,700 scientists from 80 countries have focused on life below sea level, producing in 2010 an unparalleled look at ocean life dubbed the Census of Marine Life. What did they find? 1,200 new species to add to the 250,000 already-named sea creatures. But perhaps the most exciting—and challenging—part of the research lies in the future: The CoML estimates there are another 750,000 species out there that are still unnamed, swimming around a place long-considered by many to be cold, dark and inhospitable to life.

4) A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP FOR OCEANS

Just because you convene in big groups to talk about how dire the ocean’s future is does not mean anything will get done, especially if it involves raising and spending money. The recently formed Global Partnership for Oceans is an alliance of governments, environmental groups and the private sector (i.e. bankers) intent on putting money where it’s talking points are, focused on sustainable fisheries and ecosystems as well as jobs.

5) KEEPING THE OCEAN’S “HOPE SPOTS” HEALTHY

It’s hard not to be affected by the enthusiasm for the ocean whenever the Queen of the Deep (Sylvia Earle) speaks, which is often, since she remains the go-to person at virtually every ocean conference around the world. Near to her heart and public role are “Hope Spots” she and her team have identified around the planet. For now, these are 16 marine areas scattered around the globe that are critical to the health of the ocean, which Earle calls “Earth’s blue heart.” Some Hope Spots are already protected as marine preserves, while others are deserving of the same accreditation and protection.

6) COMMITMENT TO CREATING MORE MARINE PROTECTED AREAS

While 12 percent of land is protected by international, national or local designation as reserves or park, far less than one percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Like the Hope Spots, there is a boom in creating new Marine Protected Areas, from California to the Chagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef to the Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While protecting specific species is often a key reason for protection, so is keeping these areas as viable economies for locals who have depended on them for food and jobs for generations.

7) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY’S OCEAN INITIATIVE

It’s impossible to miss the National Geographic Society’s fingerprints on many of these ongoing ocean projects, from its early and very public support of Cameron’s deep dive to the Ocean Health Index and Earle’s Hope Spots. Its own Ocean Initiative is driven by the passion of executive vice president Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of NOAA, and extends to all of its media platforms, from its website to specials on its television channel.

8) MORE FUNDING FOR OCEAN EXPLORATION

It turns out Cameron isn’t the only mega-rich guy desiring credibility as an ocean explorer. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos funded the project that just discovered—using high-tech sonar technology—the giant F-1 rocket engines that powered the Apollo 11 moon shot and have been lost at sea since 1969. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt funds the eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, intent on mounting seaborne expeditions using state-of-the-art-technology to explore—and share—scientific information about the ocean.

9) THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S NATIONAL OCEAN POLICY

Until the Obama Administration, no presidency had even proposed a National Ocean Policy. Aimed at coordinating regional efforts on fishing rules and regulations, marine protected areas, pollution, and America’s coastlines, the policy has not been adopted as law yet but an executive order signed by the president in July 2010 directs federal agencies to work together on policies that strengthen ocean governance.

10) BIG CHAIN SUPERMARKETS THAT SUPPORT SUSTAINABLE SHOPPING

At the consumer level, supermarkets—including a number of big chains —are very publicly onboard with trying to educate shoppers about which fish are most sustainable and which are not. On Earth Day (April 22) Whole Foods, for example, will announce that it will no longer carry wild-caught fish regarded as at-risk, including Albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, imported shrimp, as well as most mahi mahi, shark, red snapper and tilapia. Armed with research done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, modern-day fishmongers and buyers are increasingly knowledgeable about which fish are abundant, and which are not.

“The Island President” Director Jon Shenk Recounts Coups and Courage

Jon Shenk had never been to the Maldives when, in the fall of 2008, he read about a young activist named Mohamed Nasheed who had just become the country’s first democratically elected president after 30 years of horrific dictatorship.

Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

“When I started paying attention to Nasheed’s presidency, I was struck by his willingness to say these brutally honest things about the global environment. His was a truly unique political story.

“A lightbulb went on in my head. Here was a chance to completely shift the conversation about climate change from something a lot of people consider boring or are powerless over—climate change—to a story with both inherent drama and a kind of hero.

Weeks later the San Francisco-based filmmaker—who was director of 2004’s Lost Boys of Sudan and was DP on the Academy Award-winning Smile Pinki—was face-to-face with the new president, attempting to convince Nasheed to be the subject of a David-versus-Goliath bio-doc.

Shenk asked for unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to the president, his office, his travels, and backroom negotiations. Within three minutes after meeting, Nasheed agreed.

The filmmakers ultimately trailed the president across five continents, filming him 78 times, gaining backroom access to high-level climate-change negotiations at both the U.N. and Copenhagen’s international climate-change conference in November 2009, where the film ends.

But Shenk could not have predicted that just as his film was to be released across the country, Nasheed would be forced out of office by a coup d’état.

“Only later,” Shenk tells me on the eve of the nationwide opening of The Island President, “did he tell me he never thought we’d stick around as long as we did.”

As I talk to Shenk, he keeps his fingers tightly crossed, hopeful that among the film’s opening-night guests at New York’s Film Forum (on Wednesday) will be the now-ousted island president.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What was your reaction when you heard President Nasheed had resigned, on February 7?

Jon Shenk: It was devastatingly sad news. I was immediately worried for his safety, and his family’s safety.

During our research I’d seen hours of [archival] footage of what is possible when people want to use force in the Maldives, and what we saw last month when he was forced out of office looked eerily similar to the protests he’d led during the fight for democracy days.

One of the first things he did when he was elected was to order all of that riot gear be put away. But as soon as he was deposed, all that stuff—batons, pepper spray, water cannons—came out of the closet.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: His deposing was amazing in how quickly it happened, a kind of reverse Arab Spring. You had a democratically elected president being forced out by allies of the dictator he had worked so hard to defeat.

Jon Shenk: It was spooky because late last year Nasheed had publicly cautioned activists in Egypt and Tunisia that just because you oust a dictator doesn’t mean it’s over. Sure enough, he became the victim of just that.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Even with the incredible access you had to the president and his backroom meetings and strategy, was it difficult to film a sitting president?

Jon Shenk: Yes and no. While we had his cooperation, having one man’s cooperation in the Maldives did not mean it was all carte blanche. The Maldives is a country that had been traumatized, so people were wary of cooperating with us. These are people who had lived under a dictator, with people disappearing and constantly fearful of disappearing. We would ask questions about politics, and people would whisper back to us, looking around first before answering to make sure no one was listening.

I got the sense from the start that the shadow of the dictator had not gone away. At the time I thought that was absurd, that the dictator was never going to take power again. Of course, now I’ve been proven wrong: their fears were founded.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: As a journalist and human rights activist before being elected president, Nasheed had been imprisoned by his predecessor, held in solitary confinement, and tortured. He clearly is a big believer in transparency and a free press and has been very good at reaching out to the media. As president he vowed to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and held an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the coming impacts of climate change on low-lying island nations. In your time with him would you consider him more activist…or politician?

“…what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.”

Jon Shenk: He’s been an activist for much of his life, a Martin Luther King/Gandhi-like figure. To put his own safety on the line, to put up with solitary confinement and torture…this is not activism light.

But he is the first to admit that in order to get attention for important issues you have to be dramatic. He’s better at that than any politician I can think of.

So while he’d spent his life organizing on the streets and Internet I was amazed by how really good at governing he became when he stepped into office. But ultimately his efforts to turn out the entrenched corruption in the Maldives and create a functional economy made him a victim of the very wealthy people who were no longer getting their share as he tried to change the system.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What do you think of the criticism Nasheed was receiving in the Maldives before he was ousted that he was spending too much time traveling and working on international climate-change issues and not enough time at home focused on local problems like the economy, crime, drugs, education, etc.?

Jon Shenk: We showed The Island President at a theater in (the Maldivian capitol) Male for a week in November, and it got almost unanimously positive reviews, even from opposition websites. They said they had no idea what he was doing when he went abroad, but when they saw the film, when they saw him trying to get adaptation money and mitigation for the future, then they understood.

When he traveled abroad he was obviously working on international issues that couldn’t be more important to the Maldives. In the film you see him working like a dog. If I were a Maldivian, I would realize this is not some playboy going off to have fun; he was a hard-working negotiator working on behalf of the Maldives.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Though he’s only been out of the presidency a few weeks, do you have any idea what’s next for him?

Jon Shenk: I asked him the same question over the phone 10 days ago. What he said kind of shocked me in its optimism. He basically said he thinks this may turn out to be a good thing, that if and when there are new elections in the Maldives, the people are going to know much more about who the remnants of the corrupt oligarchy are. Perhaps if Nasheed or some decent person is able to take power again, maybe that person will have more leeway to root out the criminals.

I look forward to following his career. The world of international climate politics is virtually impossible to change, because there is so much inertia. But he has carved out a place for himself in the environmental movement, which is looking for leadership.

Of course, that’s all on a back burner right now since he fears for his life and is still trying to maintain democracy in the Maldives. Because he’s smart, charismatic, and knows what’s right and wrong, I think he still has an amazing career ahead of him.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Have you made any changes to the film given that he is no longer the president?

Jon Shenk: We never really saw this film as a news story but as a kind of David vs. Goliath tale about one of the “good people.” You see him standing up to leaders from China, Europe, the U.S. and India, saying over and over, “We’re not going to stand down.” So the film is really about leadership and the story of a man and how he’s chosen to live his life.

To change the film would pierce that. It is about what happened to him during that period, a precious document of that time of his life.

We did add a card at the end of the film that explains what’s gone on in the last couple months. I’ve been in audiences when that card comes up at the end, and there are audible sighs, because what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.

Scientists Sound the Alarm: “Aliens in Antarctica!”

“Aliens in Antarctica” is a hard-to-beat, eye-catching headline. And it’s true; they (outsiders!!!) are slowly taking root in a place long considered the most isolated, and pristine, corner of the planet.

Photo: Ryan T. Pierse/Getty Images

But it’s not what you think.

We’re not talking cellophane-skinned, one-eyed creatures from another universe, but rather much more pedestrian invaders, including bluegrass, springtails, and weeds.

By happenstance, I participated in the research that discovered this growing threat to Antarctica. During a 2008 sailing expedition along the Peninsula, my team and I agreed to be sucked by hoses (vacuumed!) on a regular basis. The detritus collected from our clothing, pockets, cuffs, boots, hair and duffle bags was carefully put into sealed bags and sent off to be dissected by scientists at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and its Center for Invasion Biology.

That year, 2008, also witnessed the height of visitors to Antarctica by both tourists and scientists—more than 40,000. The goal of the “Aliens in Antarctica” project, initiated by the Antarctic Treaty members, was to gauge just how many different invasive species all these visitors were carrying with them.

“We’re not talking cellophane-skinned, one-eyed creatures from another universe, but rather much more pedestrian invaders, including bluegrass, springtails, and weeds.”

The result of all that hosing and bagging from 1,000 volunteers has recently been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, which gives the alien invasion a hard number: Based on calculations, that season more than 71,000 seeds were carried ashore (31,732 on tourists, 38,897 on scientists), suggesting that on average every person who visits the remote continent unknowingly carries 9.5 seeds with them.

Formally, the aliens are known as plant propagules—detachable structures, such as seeds. At least four alien grasses have been identified and taken root, a reality one Australian scientist labeled a “substantial threat.”

Visiting humans changing an environment by transporting non-native plants is an old story. In Chile, algae arriving on the boots of fly fishermen have recently killed off entire lakes. The Hudson River, where I live, is choked with water chestnuts, which first showed up clinging to tanker ships arriving from afar. Today in the Galapagos, invasive species of plants outnumber native ones.

Until recently, Antarctica had staved off invasives thanks to its isolation and cold. But as more and more people come to visit, and as temperatures warm around its edges, particularly along the Peninsula where most of the tourists visit, all these hitchhiking invasives have a far better chance of surviving.

The tourists are not the worst culprits; the study puts most of the blame on visiting scientists who pack up their cold-weather gear at season’s end, take it home, use it in a variety of natural settings and then return with it to Antarctica accompanied by undetected stowaways.

Stemming the problem is a challenge. Asking Antarctic visitors to be more dutiful is a start. Visitors should wash boots and vacuum clothes and bags before arriving. In the words of Steven Chown, the invasive biology expert who co-authored the “Aliens in Antarctica” report, “Good biosecurity begins with personal responsibility.”
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Oil Boom Means More Spilling and Drilling

Just a couple of weeks after BP agreed to fork over $7.8 billion to settle 110,000 claims by Gulf Coast residents affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, another of the so-called supermajor oil companies, Chevron, has been fined and censured due to sizable ongoing spills.

Several incidents at Chevron rigs in the Frade oil field (roughly 230 miles northeast of Rio de Janerio) since late last year—and as recently as this week—have oozed more than 3,000 barrels of crude into the Atlantic Ocean. Brazilian prosecutors have filed an $11.2 billion civil suit against both Chevron and, voila, its drilling partner Transocean Ltd., for the accidents. Add that to previously assessed fines topping $100 million.

“A sizable oil leak was first detected last November; today (March 20) the company admitted to a “new small seep.” An anonymous source tells Brazilian officials many more spills are imminent.”

Frade is the largest foreign-run oil field in Brazil, producing more than 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Though Chevron, the biggest foreign oil company working in Brazil, has temporarily shut down its production operations in the country, there’s talk among local politicians about banning Chevron from Brazil’s oil riches if it doesn’t shape up. Along those lines, 17 employees of Chevron and Transocean had their passports confiscated this week and are banned from leaving Brazil until a full accounting of the recent accidents is made.

According to a report in The New York Times, Brazil’s state-controlled oil giant Petrobas reported 66 oil leaks in the country in 2011, which spilled more than 60,000 gallons. Brazil’s boom, and leaks, are a reminder of just how closely tied drilling and spilling are:

1) While the future of the Keystone XL pipeline is still being hotly debated, a new report by Cornell University claims that spills from tar sands—a heavier and more corrosive oil product that puts greater stress on pipelines—are three times more likely to occur than conventionally accessed oil. The existing Keystone 1 pipeline, operating since 2010, has had 35 spills in its 2,100-mile run.

2) We reported here in 2010 about a one-million-gallon oil spill from tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that eventually drifted 40 miles upstream. More than 130 houses have since been abandoned along the river; hunting, fishing and other recreational activities in the area have been forbidden; and the cleanup has cost twice what pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. originally estimated, so far topping $725 million.
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3) With the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on the horizon (April 20), BP was happy to get that $7.8 billion worth of payoffs behind it. But as deepwater drilling picks up off the Gulf Coast, some drilling within Mexican and Cuban waters and out of U.S. cleanup jurisdiction, the company is far from off the hook. The Wall Street Journal reports that civil penalties of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel (the total spilled was 4.9 million barrels) and additional penalties under the Clean Water Act could cost the company another $21 billion. BP needs to keep on drilling in order to pay off its fines, including ramping up its five deepwater rigs still operating in the Gulf and the three more coming online before year’s end.

4) In the boldest move yet in the exploitation-versus-environmental protection tug-of-war, Shell Oil has preemptively sued 13 environmental groups (Audubon Society, Oceana, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and more) before even drilling its first well. Though the company has spent $4 billion since 2007 on its Chukchi Sea project without sucking a drop of oil from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, it is requesting a federal court to declare in advance that its cleanup response plans are sufficient. The cynical lawsuit suggests the company is preparing not for if an accident may occur, but when.

Norwegian’s Sailboat Missing Off Antarctica … Again

It was a rather uneventful summer in Antarctica, relatively warm and wet along the coast, though much of the Peninsula remained blocked by thick pack ice due to lack of winds. The scientific highlight may have been the Russians’ successful drilling to Lake Vostok, 2.2 miles below the ice. Thankfully, there were no reports of ships run aground.

I spent January there, filming a big, new 3D movie about “change” in Antarctica, sailing down on the 74-foot Pelagic Australis. But all of that seeming uneventfulness has gone out the window with an apparent suicide-by-sailboat misadventure that is being closely monitored by Navies around the Southern Ocean.

Norwegian Jarle Andhoey, 34, self-proclaimed Viking and scofflaw of international treaties and sailing safety, and his 52-foot yacht, Nilaya, are thought to have gone missing while sailing from Antarctica toward Cape Horn. Last public contact with the Nilaya—which is not carrying an EPIRB, so it cannot be tracked by satellite even when in trouble—was a phone call from one of the crew members to his wife about five days ago. He reportedly told her the sail was broken, the boat was adrift, and that they were out of diesel and food. He had no idea of the boat’s position. Last Wednesday, March 14, Andhoey’s Oslo-based lawyer confirmed the boat was in trouble — broken mast? — and was headed back to Antarctica, hoping to land at one of the Argentina bases along the Peninsula.

If Andhoey’s name rings a bell, it’s because he was in the news exactly one year ago when his yacht the Berserk sank with three crew members aboard off the coast of Antarctica…while he and an 18-year-old boy were attempting an illegal run toward the South Pole aboard ATVs. On top of the loss of life, that misadventure got him arrested back in Norway and fined $5,000 by the Norwegian Polar Institute for traveling without permits or insurance.

This past January Andhoey headed back to the Ross Sea aboard a new yacht, claiming he was searching for signs of his lost boat. He insisted last year’s efforts by New Zealand, the U.S., and even the Sea Shepherd—which sent its helicopter out to scour the wild seas and ultimately spied its empty life raft—had failed to mount “a proper search.”

In and out of trouble for a decade, Andhoey has been a branded a madman in his home country by many people. He has even most likely renamed his new boat Berserk IV. On his website he compares himself to Roald Amundsen and has been known to wear a helmet with Viking horns.

“”It’s pathetic, really, and one has to have genuine sympathy for the families of the three lost souls that his quest for fame condemned to death.”"

Others have been far more critical than simply calling Andhoey a nutjob. New Zealand multimillionaire economist and Antarctic sailor Gareth Morgan has told the press he hopes whatever the boat is called, it sinks, describing Andhoey as a “bottom feeder, a taker of the worst kind.” “He appears to not give a toss about the amount of hurt he imparts on those who get in the way of his quest for his ‘Wild Vikings’ brand to attract sponsors and book sales,” Morgan told the New Zealand Herald. “It’s pathetic, really, and one has to have genuine sympathy for the families of the three lost souls that his quest for fame condemned to death.” Charlene Banks, sister of one of Andhoey’s crewmen who went down with the Berserk a year ago, calls him “diabolical.” “It’s all about publicity,” she told Radio New Zealand. “He’s definitely not well-prepared at all; he leaves everything to the last minute. He hasn’t got any of authorities’ approval. He believes he’s above the law.”

New Zealand authorities had been on the lookout for the Nilaya since January, when Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs alerted them that Andhoey was apparently going to attempt a return to Antarctica, again without permits or insurance. The boat was spotted by the custom’s plane in international waters off New Zealand. It apparently managed to stop in New Zealand long enough to pick up crew, though it’s not known exactly how many people are sailing aboard the Nilaya. It’s thought that now-19-year-old Samuel Massie, who was with Andhoey when they tried to reach the South Pole by ATV last year, is onboard, as is a Kiwi Maori political activist Busby Noble, who has variably reported that he was below decks repairing the anchor when the boat sailed away with him on it…or that he joined the misadventure to help give a proper blessing to the men who’d been lost at sea, one of whom was a friend.

As more private yachts sail to Antarctica each year, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has been rigorous about trying to keep operators informed on the dos and don’ts of sailing to the only place on the planet governed by international treaty. The first warning given in its manual for yachties is: All Antarctica-bound yacht expeditions must be authorized by the operator’s own country or the vessel’s flag state. In Antarctica, the Nilaya apparently sailed within two miles of the big U.S. base at McMurdo and was spotted by a base employee; New Zealand’s Scott Base was instructed not to receive the boat or crew if it showed up. They touched the ice at some point because Noble reported via sat phone to have planted the Maori flag.

When it had no luck finding any sign of the Berserk, the Nilaya apparently headed from the Ross Sea toward Cape Horn, which this time of year means navigating a 200-mile-wide band of ice. The skipper’s thinking was that if he was able to reach Argentinaian-soil—rather than going back to New Zealand, where authorities at the very least want to present him with a $9,000 bill for searching for him—he wouldn’t face arrest or prosecution. Today he bigger question remains, where is Andhoey? And what was he thinking?

NY Fracking Fight Goes Town-to-Town

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.”

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