Why the War Against Fracking May Be Our Most Crucial Conflict
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Caroline’s Deputy Supervisor, Dominic Frongillo, sees local resistance in global terms. “We’re unexpectedly finding ourselves in the ground zero for climate change,” he says. “It used to be somewhere else, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands in Alberta, Canada. But now...it’s right here under our feet in upstate New York. The line is drawn here. We can’t keep escaping the fossil fuel industry. You can’t move other places, you just have to dig in where you are.”
Two years of pre-ban work in Caroline included an election that replaced pro-drilling members of the town board with fracking opponents, public education forums, and a six-month petition drive. “We knocked on every single door two or three times,” recalls Bill Podulka, a retired physicist who co-founded the town’s resistance organization, ROUSE (Residents Opposed to Unsafe Shale Gas Extraction). “Many people were opposed to gas-drilling but were afraid to speak out, not realizing that the folks concerned were a silent majority.” In the end, 71% of those approached signed the petition, which requested a ban.
On September 11th, a final debate between drilling opponents and proponents took place, after which Barber called for the vote. A ban was overwhelmingly endorsed. “For the first time,” he told the crowd gathered in Caroline’s white clapboard town hall, “I will be voting to change the balance of rights between individuals and civil society. This is because of the impacts of fracking on health and the environment. And the majority of our citizens have voted to pass the ban.” The board then ruled 4 to 1 in favor.
About a year and a half ago, as Caroline and other towns were moving to protect their land from the industry, XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil Corporation, began preparing for a possible fracking future in the state. It eyed tree-shaded, Oquaga Creek, a trout-laden Delaware tributary in upper New York State’s Sanford County, leased the land, and applied to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) for a water-withdrawal permit. XTO required, it said, a quarter of a million gallons of water from the creek every day for its hydraulic fracturing operations.
Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, found out about the XTO application and spread the word. Within days, the DRBC received 7,900 letters of outrage. On June 1, 2011, hundreds of citizens, organized by grassroots anti-frackers, packed a hearing in Deposit, a village in Sanford Township that lies at the confluence of the creek and the western branch of the Delaware River. Only two people spoke at the meeting in favor of XTO. One was the Supervisor (mayor) of Sanford, Dewey Decker. He applauded the XTO application and denounced protestors as “outsiders.” He is among a group of landowners who have leased land to XTO for hundreds of millions of dollars. (Decker refused to be interviewed for this article.) The rest of the crowd spoke up for the creek, its fish, and its wildlife. The Delaware River Basin Commission indefinitely tabled the XTO application.
While a grassroots victory, the episode also served as a warning about how determined the industry is to move forward with fracking plans despite the state-enforced moratorium still in place. As a result, Caroline and other towns are continuing to develop local anti-fracking measures, since they know that the 2010 ban on the process will end whenever Governor Cuomo okays rules currently being written by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
When it comes to those rules and fracking more generally, the DEC has a conflict of interest. While it is supposed to protect the environment, it is also tasked with regulating the very industries that exploit it through the agency’s Mineral Resources Division. Last year, the DEC received over 80,000 written comments on the latest draft of its guidelines for the industry, the 1,500-page “SGEIS” (which stands for “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement"). Drilling opponents outnumbered proponents 10 to 1. The deluge was a record in the agency’s history.