Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas has quickly become the most controversial U.S. energy topic in decades and New York State – the only big shale-gas state left unfracked – is at its epicenter. The issue was the center of attention at a raucous hearing in New York City this week. The hearing, one of several held around New York State, organized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), was part of the comment period surrounding DEC’s voluminous draft rules governing fracking in the state. Four of us from Ecocentric attended the first of two sessions at the all-day hearing.
More than 50 speakers made statements overwhelmingly in opposition to fracking (and a few “lone frackers” – fracking advocates, as characterized by gas drilling opponent), receiving strong support from the crowd. Below is an overview of the major happenings, themes and memes that permeated the hearing.
Check out a photo slideshow of the event!
More Comments: The biggest news of the day was that the comment period for New York State’s proposed gas drilling guidance has been extended to January 11th due to the incredible volume of comments, although this is still fewer than the 180 days that many environmentalists and public officials demanded. Already, about 10,000 comments have been submitted to the DEC. To further highlight the growing interest in fracking, one speaker brought in another 2,000 letters and, to great effect, placed the giant stack in the small mailbox at the front of the stage. The message was clear: DEC is going to be pouring over a lot of mail come January 11th.
Making Noise: The hearing audience was told repeatedly not to yell or clap while speakers made their comments, a request that was honored to some degree, but it was clear some speakers had come prepared to use the crowd in attendance to their own advantage. Dave Publow of United for Action distributed his comments to many in the crowd beforehand and invited everyone to recite his comments as one. Alex Greenleaf got the audience to join him in a call-and-response sing-along about clean water. And in a polite workaround of the respectful silence rule, there was a lot of silent finger wagging a la Occupy Wall Street to show agreement or disagreement with speakers.
Buffers: A common question: What good is a 1,000 foot buffer between a drilling site and a drinking water supply or water infrastructure if horizontal drilling can extend 3,000 feet from a drill site? Mayor Bloomberg wants at least a 7-mile buffer.
Fracking supporters? Hellooo?: Out of over 50 speakers made use of their three minutes during the day’s first hearing session, and only two spoke in support of fracking. Every city, state and federal official who weighed in at the hearing was critical of the DEC’s plans. However a van-full of industry-supporting Energy in Depth staffers were at least present in the theater. Not a peep from them during the hearing, although a few of us chatted with one of them outside in between hearings.
Fracking and Food: Another theme of the day was the potential impact of fracking on New York’s farmers. Louise Johnson of SkyHill Farm talked about the highly vulnerable aquifers in her region, Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch said that sustainable farming is the future of Upstate New York, not extractive drilling, and Hilary Baum of Chefs for the Marcellus pointed out that farms could be stigmatized if fracking operations move in nearby.
Quakin': Obscure seismic activity maps were in the spotlight, with speakers saying that the maps used by DEC to determine earthquake dangers were outdated. Paul Rush of NYC’s Water Commission said that even if earthquakes were not strong enough to cause structural damage on the surface, minor seismic activity could impact underground equipment used in fracking. This issue has gained more prominence of late because of a recently released UK report states that fracking “likely caused” tremors in Lancashire, England, and just on its heels, a report from the Oklahoma Geological Survey also linked fracking to seismic events.
Better Choice – Renewables: Some of the more memorable commenters, Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Skopik in particular, focused not just on fracking’s potential dangers, but on the alternative to natural gas: renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency. Not only is the clean energy industry, well, cleaner, but it also generates long-term jobs in contrast to fossil fuels' boom and bust model.
Wrong Question: One particularly powerful theme was that the entire premise of the DEC’s process is flawed. As Josh Fox, director of Gasland, first proposed, it’s not a question of how we should drill for natural gas, but whether natural gas fracking should be allowed at all.
Dimock, PA: On the minds of many at the hearing was the plight of Dimock, PA, where that very same day, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. was scheduled to end its three-year agreement to deliver potable water for 11 families whose wells were tainted because of the company’s faulty gas drilling. The families are now on their own to find drinking and bathing water.
Cumulative Effects: “Cumulative” was the word of the day, with speakers accusing the DEC of not accounting for the cumulative effects of exposure to the hundreds of chemicals involved in fracking, nor of the cumulative impact of the anticipated tens of thousands of natural gas wells over the first 30 years of drilling in the state. For some, it would at least make sense to wait for the completion of the more comprehensive EPA Hydraulic Fracturing Study before proceeding.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up: The DEC’s socioeconomic report was at the receiving end of much criticism, with speakers accusing the report of using fuzzy math when calculating job growth, not showing how the risk associated with fracking is passed along from oil and gas companies to homeowners (drilling activity isn’t covered by homeowner’s insurance and may cause mortgage holders to go into default) and not illustrating the true economic impact of rapid industrialization on real estate values, farming and tourism.
Health Impacts: Several speakers raised the important point that the state’s evaluation failed to adequately address fracking’s impact on human health, a concern supported by health professionals across the state. As one health professional noted, the state failed to evaluate “the kinds of health consequences that have already been observed in affected communities in those states where hydraulic fracturing is taking place."
Hit the Brakes: For those who didn’t call for an outright ban on fracking, the odd review process taken by DEC was a matter of concern. Specifically, why conduct an environmental review process at the same time as developing regulations? Shouldn’t the state figure out the economic and environmental costs and benefits of fracking before even considering regulating the practice? And why hasn’t there been a similar review and report procedure by other agencies that have a direct interest in fracking, like the Departments of Transportation, Health and Agriculture?
The Last Word: In a day full of memorable quotes, this might be our favorite: “Like my periodontist always says, there’s a slam-dunk case against fracking.” Indeed.
Check out a photo slideshow from the hearing.