Thursday, January 19, 2012

Between rhetorical poles, forum finds constructive dialog

Nuance and detail are often the casualties of a debate dominated by interests vested in either stopping or promoting hydraulic fracturing. Today’s panel discussion hosted by the Press & Sun-Bulletin and the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce included those necessary voices, but it also went beyond to include an engaged and open-minded audience that steered the discussion in constructive ways.

The audience was part of the Broome Leadership Institute, a program run through the chamber to educate young professionals interested in current events and civic duty. These people, who aspire to serve on boards, advise government, or fill voluntary leadership roles, are interested in mastering the daily issues that most affect their hometowns, and shale gas development is high on the list. As a resident of New York’s Southern Tier, I was encouraged by what they brought to this forum, held in a conference room at the Binghamton Press printing plant in Johnson City.

I was fortunate to be invited to participate on the panel, moderated by Press & Sun Bulletin City Editor Ed Christine. Other guests included Walter Hang, president of Toxic Targeting; Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York; Rob Wedlake, a lease attorney with Hinman, Howard & Kattell; and Brian Shea, legislative director for Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo. Hang and Gill, by the nature of their positions, are adversaries. Hang is a career environmentalist who makes a living by finding and tracking pollution for clients that include civil engineers and developers. Gill is a public relations voice for an industry that is often at the center of Hang’s public criticism. 

Both Hang and Gill brought their parlor room manners to the event, each making a point to publically acknowledge how much they liked and respected the other.  That aside, they stayed on talking points that were flatly at odds with one other: Hang: The industry is under-regulated as proven by a track record of spills and methane migration, under reported or unreported, throughout New York and Pennsylvania. New York state, which is overextend regulating conventional drilling, is ill-prepared to move ahead without regulatory reform that goes beyond the current policy proposal.

Gill: The prolonged delays in finalizing that policy proposal (the SGIES), looming legal challenges, and added regulatory burdens will keep the industry, with accompanying jobs and prosperity, from developing either the Marcellus or Utica formations in New York state. If things don’t change soon, operators will exclude New York State while concentrating their capital in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Rob Wedlake spoke about compulsory integration and other legal concepts that should become part of the working vocabulary of anybody living over New York’s shale gas reserves, which extend from the state’s southern boarder to the Great Lakes, east through the Catskills, and west to the Alleghenies. Shea explained the reasoning behind New York’s approach to regulation --- Get it right before shale gas proceeds; and how that differs from the approach in Pennsylvania –- React to problems as they develop.

There were about 35 member of the audience that, facilitated by Christine, set the tone to ensure the forum was grounded in practical matters rather than spiraling off into rhetorical neverland. Several people asked how shale gas development will change the character of their community. Some called to mind IBM Corp’s departure from Endicott, leaving a legacy of both wealth and pollution, and asked about the long term prospects of the shale gas industry. If it lasts 50 years, what then? Sometimes the questions bordered on the philosophical: What are acceptable levels of risks? How does this affect me personally?

A video of the forum, along with Steve Reilly's report, are available at the Press & Sun-Bulletin website.

There was no sweeping consensus, other than vast Marcellus and Utica shale gas reserves under the northeast are now accessible, for better or worse, through high volume hydraulic fracturing, and it is up to state and national governments to decide how to proceed; but I left with a feeling that  people who needed to know about this were getting the information they needed.

Because the big stakeholders are so active in promoting their visions, which we are all familiar with now thanks to the movie Gasland, demonstrations, and glossy industry broadcast and print media ad campaigns, it’s easy to loose site of this important fact: New York’s state environmental review and fracking moratorium grew from events in 2008, long before the shale gas debate went national and lobbyist for industry and anti-fracking advocates started to dominate the story. It came from landowners meeting in town halls, and asking questions that state regulators could not answer about impacts of the shale gas rush. It’s good to see that, with this forum at least, the public continues to direct the discussion. 

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