Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More on the history of New York’s fracking ban

I accepted a recent assignment for the Press & Sun-Bulletin – recounting how fracking was stopped in New York – with feelings of both eagerness and uneasiness.

Eagerness was due to having a chance to recap the history of a story I have been covering for seven years. The uneasiness stemmed from how I would do this in a newspaper-length article on a 48-hour deadline.

The results ran both in abbreviated and longer versions in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Pressconnects, and this blog. The long version was 3,700 words -- about 10 times the length of a standard newspaper article. But it was still short considering the scope of the subject. By comparison, I needed more than 90,000 words to tell the story more comprehensively in my book, Under the Surface.

The key players that have shaped New York’ story from the onset number well into the hundreds, and I had space to reference perhaps a dozen in the newspaper piece. Not surprisingly, I have heard feedback from people that my story lacked some perspective. As one source put it, the story of the battle has become the battle for the story.

Two readers touched on particular events relating to a bill, signed by Gov. Paterson in 2008, that was the catalyst for events to follow. The bill would make spacing units for the large unconventional Marcellus gas wells conformable with existing state policy — a move that would effectively streamline the permitting process. Without it, shale gas development would get hung-up on an administrative process designed for the much smaller conventional wells.

The bill was the kind of wonkish-policy instrument that few lay people have the appetite for, and one that induces migraines to reporters writing for mainstream audiences. But it was also the sort of under-the-radar document that offers stakeholders who master it a strategic advantage in influencing important decisions. In this case, it was a necessary component for the gas industry to get things moving in New York. While this policy-making was different from the grass roots aspect of the movement that I report on, the bill ended up being a notable reference point and precursor to the anti-fracking movement.

Although the bill passed overwhelmingly, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and a small group of her colleagues voted against, she said, to “send a message to Paterson.” At the same time, she added, “local and statewide activists raised red flags about what this bill would do to speed up the process as well. That helped put the brakes on the whole matter.”

Paterson ordered a hold on permitting pending an environmental review when he signed the bill. But the bill had, for the record, a certain symbolic relevance. More importantly, it was a magnet for organizational involvement in state affairs that, by some accounts, was a forerunner of the anti-fracking movement.

Roger Downs, a program director with the Sierra Club, noted that several environmental organizations were among the first to recognize the significance of this spacing bill, and engage and challenge the DEC about what its impact would be.These groups included the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Riverkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, The Wilderness Society and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Damacus Citizens for Sustainability. (I’m sure I am leaving some out.)

Now, moving on to an altogether different thread of the story, Chip Northrup, the drilling-investor-turned-fractivist, offers another critical aspect of the story’s history: economics.

Northrup writes:

We can summarize why fracking was prohibited in New York with a simple construct – the cost/ benefit ratio – what the environmental risks and economic costs would be to the state and it citizens versus the benefits of shale gas industrialization. Initially, this ratio appeared to tilt very much in favor of fracking – at least in the popular press and in the corridors of power – because the gas industry had grossly overstated the benefits of shale gas development while categorically denying the risks and collateral damage associated with it.

You can read Northrup’s full post here.

I am currently finishing an updated version of Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, to be published in paperback by for Cornell University Press next year. This will probably be close to 110,000 words. I would like to think, as the subtitle suggests, it covers a lot of ground and offers a pretty good idea of events that distinguish New York from Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation with the unfolding of the on-shore drilling boom. But there will always be more to report. In that spirit, I encourage readers to pass along any of their own stories or recollections.

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