If the debate over fracking were a political campaign – and in many ways it is -- New York might be considered a pivotal battle ground state.
Like Pennsylvania, New York sits over two of the world’s largest shale gas reserves – the Marcellus and the Utica. But while Pennsylvania has allowed the industry access to these pay zones with relatively few regulatory restrictions, New York has suspended permits for shale gas pending a review of its environmental impacts.
As recounted in my book, Under the Surface, the movement to prevent shale gas development in New York started in June, 2008 with unanswered questions raised by local residents, planners and elected officials at town hall meetings about the state’s ability to safely regulate the industry in areas traditionally untouched by mineral extraction. In the four years since, skepticism over the government’s ability to control Big Energy – fueled by a growing list of problems and lack of transparency in Pennsylvania and other drilling states -- has become a lynch pin of the national anti-fracking campaign. That campaign features upstate residents and activists such Walter Hang and Sandra Steingraber, backed by a growing cast of celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo, Alec Baldwin, and Josh Fox, and by a collection of scholars and politicians. They warn of an unhealthy and unsustainable future dependent on a shale gas economy. They are taking on an industry with deep PR, lobbying, legal, and technical wherewithal and landowners of large rural tracts pitching shale gas development as the means to an economic renaissance and a preferable alternative to coal.
Within the last month, anti-fracking activists have featured rallies in Albany and Syracuse, and this week they were in Binghamton. Their efforts are aimed at Governor Andrew Cuomo and a review by his New York Department of Environmental Conservation evaluating the impacts from shale gas development. As those following the story know well by now, fracking, short for high volume hydraulic fracturing, involves mixing toxic chemicals with water and injecting them into the ground under pressure to stimulate gas flow. Each shale gas well requires 4 million or more gallons of this proprietary chemical mix, and produce like amounts of flowback consisting of spent fracking fluid, brine, heavy metals, and other elements buried in the earth’s crust for 600 million years. Six more wells may be allowed per square mile of a shale gas reserve, which span multiple states.
The latest draft of the DEC’s environmental review of the process, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), would, ban fracking in watersheds that supply New York City and Syracuse due to risks of opening an exposure pathway to these hazards through water pollution. This only underscores the inherent problem with fracking in the minds of critics. If the risks of water pollution are unacceptable in these watersheds, they argue, why are they acceptable in others? “We see it as a matter of environmental justice,” said Steingraber, an ecologist and award winning author. “A child who drinks water from an unfiltered well in an aquifer in Broome County has the same rights as a child in Manhattan who drinks from an unfiltered water-supply that begins high in the Catskills.” Steingraber won the Heinz Foundation prize for her latest book, Raising Elijah, and donated most of the $100,000 honorarium to help found New Yorkers Against Fracking, an umbrella group that has organized localized grass roots endeavors statewide.
Steingraber delivered her remarks about environmental justice on Tuesday outside Binghamton City Hall with Mayor Matthew Ryan and other politicians and representatives of environmental groups. The greater Binghamton area, which sits over a prime part of the Marcellus Shale, is a strategically important place in the debate. While the city’s residents are represented by Ryan and others who generally oppose fracking, much of the outlying area comes under the jurisdiction of landowners and drilling proponents who support state Senator Tom Libous. As a drilling advocate and deputy majority leader of the Republican controlled Senate, Libous is positioned to block any bills that would further delay or ban fracking in New York state. Several of those bills have gained traction in the Democrat controlled Assembly.
Broome County legislator Julie Lewis, vice president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York Inc., hopes to add her pro-drilling voice to the Assembly next year. Lewis is challenging incumbent Donna Lupardo for the 126th district seat. Lupardo, a senior Democrat and member of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, has advocated more study of issues related to fracking, while Lewis is pressing for an end to delays. Lewis sees the DEC’s decision to ban drilling in certain watersheds as a conciliatory tactic to ease pressure from anti-drllling forces in politically influential parts of the state. “They did it to appease these groups,” Lewis said. “These problems (related to water pollution and drilling) are very minor, isolated and correctable.“
Steingraber and Co. disagree. They are pressing their message that fracking threatens profound and lasting damage to the water table at a strategically important time. There is a sense that a showdown is imminent later this year, when the state DEC is expected to finalize the SGEIS. With that piece in place, permitting could begin, barring no legislative or judicial stays. The SGIES,, which has been sent back to the drawing board twice after more than 60,000 written comments, mostly from critics, continues to draw relentless fire from drilling opposition who now site the exclusion of certain water sheds due to safety concerns, but not others, as another fatal flaw.
But not all environmental groups are together on this. In reviewing the SGEIS, officials from the National Resources Defense Council have suggested allowing permitting on a trial basis in communities over the most promising shale gas zones, in places like Broome County that are generally receptive to the industry. Robert Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney for the NRDC, also sits on a panel advising DEC Commissioner Joe Martens and other state officials on managing shale gas. Steingraber and the New Yorkers Against Fracking activists characterize the zones where drilling would be allowed, while others are spared for political expediency, as “sacrifice zones.”
The picture will likely get more complicated after the political cards are shuffled with this year’s election. Will voters give anti-fracking Democrats or pro-fracking Republicans control over both chambers of New York’s legislature and critical influence in deciding once and for all whether New York will become a drilling state? There is also a possibility that Cuomo’s office will release the final SGEIS after the elections and before the new legislature convenes, at a time in which political factors could be effectively neutralized. (Cuomo advocated moving the SGEIS forward soon after he took office, but has since deferred to the DEC.)
The state’s fracking drama plays out in the backdrop of a national election year that will also shape the future of shale gas development. A Romney EPA would not likely stand in the way of a push for on-shore shale gas development from the drill-baby-drill contingent. Obama, meanwhile, has given public backing to shale gas production as a necessary part of his “all of the above” energy vision. His EPA, lead by Lisa Jackson, is reviewing the safety of hydraulic fracturing in a report that is also due at the end of this year. That report will send a critical message as to whether an Obama EPA is ready to get more involved in regulating the industry and eliminating federal exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act (the infamous ‘Haliburton Loophole’) that allows the industry to put what it wants into the ground without disclosure. But don’t expect that report before election time, either.