Fracking

Revealed: NY Governor Plans to Experiment with Fracking in Economically Struggling Areas

Gov. Cuomo came under intense criticism when news was leaked of a plan to begin fracking in economically struggling areas of New York.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is coming under increased criticism as his administration’s plan to begin fracking in economically depressed areas of the state was leaked. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported on the reveal, which came from an anonymous senior official from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The plan is part of a demonstration project in which the DEC would issue permits for a limited number of wells in certain areas and then monitor the fracking to see if the process could be done safely. Critics are calling on the governor not to use the residents of these struggling territories as "guinea pigs."

These struggling areas, which include Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga counties, make up what is known as the Southern Tier, a region in southwest New York that borders Pennsylvania, a state that allows fracking. This region lies on top of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation stretching across the Appalachian Mountains to upstate and western New York, which is believed to contain a large supply of natural gas.

Maura Stephens, a Southern Tier resident and co-founder of Coalition to Protect New York, an anti-fracking alliance, said that family farmers in the rural area have been struggling financially as more and more government spending has gone to support large-scale industrial agriculture. Also, many residents in the Southern Tier, she said, go without high-speed Internet and therefore get much of their information from mainstream media and the rampant pro-fracking commercials that air in the area.

“Many have fallen under the spell of the industry, which spends upward of $140 million a year on advertising and lobbying to convince people and legislators that fracking is clean, green, domestic and job-producing,” she said.

Fracking or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of using a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals to break up shale rock to extract gas. The process has been linked to various environmental and health damages. Research has also found that the fracking industry does not produce as many jobs as advertised.

Still, the supposed economic benefits from fracking, including possible job creation and the money reaped from leasing land to gas companies, have led some residents to support fracking. The DEC official told the Times that fracking would only be allowed in towns that agree to it.

Jim Worden, member of the Southern Tier Landowners Coalition, a pro-fracking group, said that he supports the fracking initiative, which he believes can be done safely and is cleaner than oil drilling. He said he has seen a lot of job creation in Pennsylvania, and he wants to see the country depend less on foreign oil. He plans to lease his land to gas companies when the New York state moratorium is lifted.

Worden said that if people in this country are not going to change their lifestyles, they should accept new forms of energy.

“Every source of energy in the United States has some negative impact … I’m a realist. I use energy. I’m not going to go back to heating my house with wood,” he said. “We are an energy dependent country, and most people are accustomed to that type of living and they’re not going to change it.”

Stephens said that although it’s being stated that the majority of residents in the Southern Tier support fracking, she finds that when going door-to-door to speak with residents, more people are opposed to fracking. She said those in positions of power tend to speak for the residents. 

“People are waking up,” she said. “But their local town boards have been co-opted by the industry … and now they’re passing preemptive resolutions saying we’re not going to ban fracking.”

The DEC official also told the New York Times that fracking would only take place in the deepest areas of Marcellus Shale to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database website, said that it doesn’t matter how far down you frack because the process always generates wastewater that is radioactive and contaminated with toxic metals.

“There is currently not a single facility in New York State that could handle this kind of gas drilling wastewater safely and properly,” he said.

Hang noted an incident in Pittsburgh, PA in 2008, when contaminated wastewater ended up in the Monongahela River because the water was sent to treatment plants that weren’t designed to purify this highly contaminated water. As a result, 850,000 residents could not drink water. This was all occurring while the city was experiencing a drought. It’s important to note that not only does fracking contaminate the water, but it uses millions of gallons of freshwater during the process.

“That had never happened in the history of the country where public drinking water was rendered non-potable, you couldn’t drink it,” he said. “So if New York wants to avoid that kind of calamity, it’s got to adopt comprehensive environmental and health safeguards — that has not happened.”

Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, author and anti-fracking advocate, said there is no data to suggest that fracking could be done safely.

“It’s an unproven technology,” she said, adding that it’s important to ask, “Over what time period do you want to demonstrate safety?”

She said that environmentally harmful projects affect people decades later. As for fracking, she said that the fracking well’s foundation of cement and steel will eventually disintegrate and toxic chemicals will be vented out.

The Times story comes months after Governor Cuomo announced he would soon make a final decision on fracking, despite the fact that Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) proceedings, which included a review of more than 67,000 public comments, were far from completion.

Critics have said that Cuomo has his eye set on running for president, and his fracking decision wins him favor with oil and gas corporations.

If he ever runs for president, Hang said, “He’s going to basically be in a position to say to some very, very wealthy entities ‘Hey I helped you, now I need your help.’”

Cuomo is seeing much resistance after the Times article was released. On Wednesday, 76 New York legislators sent a bipartisan letter to Cuomo requesting he resolve critical issues before allowing fracking to take place in the state.  

Hang said his tactic is to work within the political system to ban fracking until all of the concerns he has documented regarding the process are fully resolved. Hang has composed a letter to the governor to oppose Southern Tier fracking, which has gained more than 2,600 signatures and counting.

“We’re bringing increasing force to bear on the governor,” he said. “We’re going to make him surmount some really tough hurdles and we’re going to try to make sure this demo project never gets implemented because it is essentially environmental discrimination.”

Stephens said her group will join with people all over the state for actions and will, most importantly, continue going door-to-door educating the public, especially in the Southern Tier, about fracking.

Anti-fracking activists across the state have already begun rallies both in front of the DEC and government officials’ offices to demand a ban on fracking.

Stephens said this fight against oil and gas corporations is going to be a difficult one.

“It’s hard to fight them because they don’t give a damn if our kids are getting sick and dying. But I believe that we shall prevail,” she said.

“Do I think we’re going to win? I don’t know … you just do the right thing,” Steingraber said. “You pay attention to signs of atrocity around you and then you take action. You don’t decide whether to take action or not based on some calculation about whether it’s winnable or not. You just work toward it and address this terrible problem, and hopefully you’re part of an amazing historical moment that makes the world better.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an intern at AlterNet. She is a recent Ithaca College graduate who double-majored in journalism and politics. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.