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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'Under the Surface' to Arrive this Spring

I've just finished the longest and most challenging writing assignment of my career. The result, Under the Surface, will be published by Cornell University Press this spring.

Under the Surface is the first book-length journalistic overview of shale gas development and the controversies surrounding it. It focuses on stakeholders in New York and Pennsylvania living over the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural gas fields in the world. The decisions by landowners to work with or against the companies seeking mineral rights to extract gas from under the land —and the resulting environmental and economic consequences—are scrutinized by neighbors faced with similar decisions, by residents of cities whose water supply originates in the exploration area, and by those living across state lines with differing attitudes and policies concerning extraction industries. There are few people who are unaffected.  Landowners tempted by the prospects of wealth but wary of the consequences, activists coordinating campaigns based on their respective visions of economic salvation and environmental ruin, and policy makers struggling with divisive issues involving often conflicting municipal, state, and federal rule making intended to accelerate, delay, or discourage exploration.

Writing a book, in comparison to daily newspaper reporting, is a fairly reclusive experience. While I did some travel to keep up with sources and unfolding events, the project required long stretches devoted to composition that made it necessary to remove myself from the daily (and highly visible) sort of beat work that characterized  newspaper career. As Under the Surface goes through proofs and then production, I will be back out on the beat, so to speak, keeping up with daily and weekly events through this blog.