Monday, November 28, 2011

DEC hearings show no end to public interest over Shale Gas debate.

The policy debate over the Marcellus that started with seismic political rumblings in the summer of 2008 has only grown more intense over the last four years. As a reporter, I have covered the siting of projects ranging from landfills to malls, and my beat involved chronicling issues that benefit some and hurt others. A common theme: At what point is the public good served at the expense of individuals?

Landfills and shopping malls are beneficial and necessary of course, although you might not feel that way if one was sited in your neighborhood. With shale gas development, we have a regional, state-controlled siting of industry that, proponents argue, will serve the public good in terms of national security and economic stability. Opponents argue that it comes at the expense of the quality of life and natural resources with no vehicle for planning on a local level. Rather than affecting several hundred acres, as with a mall or landfill in a given locale, the impact of shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing is spread over 95,000 square miles, in the case of the Marcellus, and an even broader landscape when considering the Utica and other shale gas formations in the northeast and throughout the country.

Accordingly, public meetings that once filled town halls and school auditoriums are now filling theaters and forums. The latest hearings by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are signs that the public interest in this topic only continues to intensify. The first two hearings in Dansville and Binghamton drew several thousand residents and protesters – from near and far -- who packed community forums and held rallies and demonstrations outside.

It’s heartening to see the First Amendment alive and well, and an engaged public that will hold public officials accountable for their responses to this issue. In 2012, federal energy policy is likely to be a primary issue in the presidential race – and a sensitive one, judging by the Obama administration’s recent handling of the Keystone Oil Pipeline  controversy.  Gubernatorial elections in New York and Pennsylvania are still a few years off. But no doubt the legacy of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett will be shaped by their responses to the shale gas controversy.

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