Friday, December 7, 2012

Anti-fracking celebs bring road show to Albany tonight Concert film summons folk tradition to politics

Dear Governor Cuomo”, a film by Jon Bowermaster documenting the celebrity-lead anti-fracking protest movement in New York state, will debut in Albany tonight, with a screening at the Linda Theater at 7:30 p.m. The film is part of a broader event featuring singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant, Bowermaster, and others who will join a panel discussion with Alan Chartock, journalist, publisher, and CEO of WAMC public radio. 

What impact will this event and the broader efforts of the anti-fracking movement have on New York State fracking policy? In search of answers, I decided to write to the governor myself:

Dear Governor Cuomo:

Do you like Natalie Merchant, The Horse Flies, Joan Osborne, and Mark Ruffalo? Just curious, but your taste in music and film is beside the point. I’m guessing that you, an astute politician, are aware that these and other celebrities who call New York State home have marshaled an impassioned collection of talent and creative energy to urge you to ban hydraulic fracturing and leave the carbon reserves locked in bedrock below the state alone.  You also probably know that the latest centerpiece of this effort is the film “Dear Governor Cuomo”, produced exclusively to get your attention or, perhaps more accurately, to apply popular pressure to leverage the anti-fracking cause.

Members of this delegation will be in Albany tonight to inspire fans with a potent mix of music and visuals condemning shale gas development as a reckless and exploitive endeavor that comes at the expense of public health and the environment.  Albany is one of many stops. After debuting the film at the Woodstock Film Festival in October, director Jon Bowermaster brought his show on the road. He is accompanied by Natalie Merchant and a network of performers, speakers, and scholars who are recruiting and rallying fans to take up the anti-fracking cause in cities throughout New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and California.   

I have interviewed many of these activists. My impression is that they are ready to sustain their efforts against fracking by showcasing events in New York state and Pennsylvania, the border of which has become the front line of the national conflict over the merits and risks of shale gas development. The musician/activists are following a tradition that has successfully channeled reform through the pull of popular music in generations past: Woody and Arlo Guthrie… Sam Cooke… Pete Seeger...  Graham Nash… Jane Fonda…. The list goes on and on, of course. Celebrities seeking to influence policy ranging from Civil Rights to the Vietnam War to the Labor Movement, to nuclear power regulation have long used the allure of art to shape both social consciousness and conscience.

Your father can relate personal memories of some principal standard bearers of this tradition, I’m sure. Speaking of that, Bowermaster’s film features a clip of Pete Seeger who recalls your father’s legacy and directs some pointed thoughts about fracking your way. You must have seen that …?

My primary question, though, is how much will all this influence the outcome of energy policy in New York state.  You are both the state’s figurehead and most influential administrator, and it starts with your policy directives, which are still incomplete as far as anybody can tell, although its hard to know without a more public accounting of where things stand. How much leverage can the celebrities and the popular opinion they reflect and influence apply to your decision to ban or embrace fracking (which, if we are to believe statements from your administration, is still pending)? How much will your decision be influenced by efforts of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State and other industry groups and landowner coalitions who champion shale gas development as economic salvation and independence?

Please don’t say that it all depends on science. People are beginning to see through that. Science is being summoned by both sides with little consensus and resolution likely in the near or distant future. So you will be left to make your decision in the realm of politics, with an imperfect and incomplete body of science as your guide. The issues and ethics in play are global, of course. The world is needy for energy – especially wood and coal-burning third world countries trying to clutch freedoms and living standards that we have enjoyed in this country for generations, accompanied and enabled by the indiscriminate burning of carbon.  You lead one of the most energy hungry states in the world sitting over one of the largest carbon reserves. So all eyes are on you for leadership, not just within New York state, but around the world.

Are you still weighing this issue? The price of gas has been low, and the next gubernatorial election has been distant. But you’re now facing a pivotal point.  If you allow permitting before the next election, are you ready to deal with the political repercussions from a sustained movement these activists have promised to lead? Are you ready to accept the prospects of a legacy outlasting the life of the reserve? Will you close exemptions that allow the industry to dispose of waste without a full accounting of its hazards?

If you ban it, will you be able to deliver an energy plan that overcomes the inertia preventing renewable energy and conservation from flourishing? Or will you default to policy tied to coal or nuclear sources, or continue with a disproportionate dependence on unhealthy energy sources from outside of the state and even the country?

These are big questions, and hard to answer with generic statements issued through the various offices of public affairs within your administration, which has become your primary vehicle for communicating fracking matters these days. But I guess we will find out soon enough.


Tom Wilber


  1. Tom - as someone who was present in ALbany the day of the lobbying and concert last May, I can assure you that we are ready and willing to keep up this fight. I also believe that your comment on the science needs another look Science is being summoned from both sides but the pro-fracking "scientific" research is continuously being exposed for what it is - research funded with industry money and ties. It won't hold up to the light of day as seen in SUNY Buffalo and now University of Texas and even perhaps in an industry funded faculty position at Binghamton University. I think it's a false equivalent to say both sides are using science. Science has no bias. Thanks for all you do to raise awareness on this most important issue.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Barbara

      There are instances where the integrity of science is being exposed or at least questioned. Access to the field remains a concern for independent scientists as well as EPA officials who have been turned away by companies who don’t want to give up control of the message.

      I write about that here

      But there is also worthy science, done in good faith, happening between the rhetorical poles. Trouble is, it is not very well developed because the technical issues are still new and science takes a long time, especially science that has to account for all the macro and micro complexity ranging from hydro geology to global systems.

      A reader on my facebook page just posted a complaint that science supporting the industry was being dismissed or marginalized by members of the anti-fracking movement who employ the arts to influence public opinion. My answer to him also pertains to your point, so I will repost here:

      Science is essential to the discussion, of course, but it’s often used to sweep aside all other aspects of the story, some of which have little to do with science. Shale gas development brings monumental social components and diverse contextual elements that reach well beyond the scope of science. Winners and losers, boom and bust, quality of life, my land rights versus your land rights. My safety versus your freedom.

      Science is a tool unique to humankind to advance his understanding and command over the natural world, mostly but not always in beneficial ways. Government is another uniquely human creation. That’s where all the ideology and social forces come in. No single person or school of thought should control those forces. Thus the freedoms of speech, religion, expression, etc – including scientific inquiry -- are paramount to the way we do things. That’s my guiding light.

    2. To add to point above: "there is also worthy science, done in good faith..."

      Work done by independently by Robert Howarth, Lawrence Cathles, and Michael Levi for example show varying impacts from methane leaks. The work taken as a body is inconclusive and limited, but it represents a start by reputable sources to quantify the problem

    3. Tom, you may already know this - the work by Howarth and others from Cornell in conjunction with NOAA was contested by Michael Levi of the Consul on Foreign Relations (CFR). In short, fugitive emissions from shale gas operations could be real high. Levi recalculated and published a paper indicating they could be less high. The brewhaha from anti-fracking was somewhat squelched by Michael Levi and EDF after industry blew a gasket. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has sponsored a new more comprehensive study on fugitive emissions and will publish for open public review the in January 2013. However, the president of EDF Fred Krupp calls shale gas fracking "a game changer." I'm not sure what game he's playing so I'll not comment.

      From reading Levi's blog on the CFR website, he is a pretty big advocate for shale gas and apparently LNG export and domestic fossil fuel exploitation in general - except maybe below his house,wherever that may be. Let's hope a LNG terminal is not being proposed for Staten Island to carry away the spoils of the Marcellus and Utica.

    4. Thanks for your elaborations Michael.
      I am aware of Levi's work, which can be found here:
      And NOAA, which can be found here
      Debate over the mertis of these works is ongoing, and a great example how science is still inconclusive re: shale gas risks

    5. My money on the quality of science regarding shale gas risk is on NOAA's work supported by the consulting firm Environ and Cornell over the forthcoming EDF report with support from O&G, consulting firms URS and others and UT Austin. However, given EDF's interest with NRDC in shale gas promotion, the EDF report will get the "right" answer. Have you read this NRDC report:

      Sort of assumes shale gas will replace coal.

  2. Excellent Tom, well said and agree wholeheartedly, as well as with my gut, and with experience I've had in science, engineering and contracting over the past 25 years or so in groundwater protection and remediation.

    I'll try (more thought then action maybe) to pass your letter on to the offices of Governor Quinn of Illinois, Mayor Emmanuel of Chicago and President Obama of the United States of America. Emmanuel may freak-out the most once he finds out that Michigan will start fracking within the Lake Michigan watershed next year (Chicago's drinking water). Quinn just hopes to finish his term and is looking to use Southern Illinois shale gas to pay for unfunded pensions. Obama may lead somewhere from behind on the National issue of fracking and like most neo-liberal policy concerning the environment - to no avail.


  4. Hope the movie gets nationwide distribution/some sort of internet distribution ... I'm very heartened to learn about the music, which I hadn't till now really. When people start singing they can't be stopped.

  5. wow...celebs play good role
    get more info from

  6. This is how i found your blog quite interesting and concern in the blog is really impressive keep updating your blog and i have also bookmarked your blog for future updates and thanks for sharing this kind of precious information...!!!

    Watch free