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Ellen Cantarow: "Little Revolution," Big Fracking Consequences

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Today, that activist legacy is evident in a grassroots insurgency in upstate New York, a struggle by ordinary Americans to protect what remains of their democracy and the Earth's fragile environment from giant corporations intent on wrecking both. On one side stands New York's anti-fracking community; on the other, the natural gas industry, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, and New York's industry-allied Joint Landowners Coalition.

As for Governor Cuomo, he has managed to anger both sides.  He seemed to bow to industry this past June by hinting that he would end a 2010 moratorium on fracking introduced by his predecessor David Paterson and open the state to the process; then, in October, he appeared to retreat after furious protests staged in Washington D.C., as well as Albany, Binghamton, and other upstate towns.

"I have never seen [an environmental movement] spread with such wildfire as this," says Robert Boyle, a legendary environmental activist and journalist who was central in the Storm King case and founded Riverkeeper, the prototype for all later river-guardian organizations. "It took me 13 or 14 years to get the first Riverkeeper going. Fracking isn't like that. It's like lighting a train of powder."

Developed in 2008 and vastly more expansive in its infrastructure than the purely vertical form of fracking invented by Halliburton Corporation in the 1940s, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing is a land-devouring, water-squandering technology with a greenhouse gas footprint greater than that of coal. The process begins by propelling one to nine million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water at hyperbaric bomb-like pressures a mile or more beneath Earth's surface. Most of that fluid stays underground. Of the remainder, next to nothing is ever again available for irrigation or drinking.  A recent report by the independent, nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that fracking poses serious risks to health and the environment.

New York State's grassroots resistance to fracking began about four years ago around kitchen tables and in living rooms as neighbors started talking about this frightening technology. Shallow drilling for easily obtainable gas had been done for decades in the state, but this gargantuan industrial effort represented something else again.

Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University's Department of Engineering, co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, calls this new form of fracking an unparalleled danger to the environment and human health. "There's much more land clearing, much more devastation of forests and fields. . . thousands of miles of pipelines. . . many compressor stations [that] require burning enormous quantities of diesel. . . [emitting] hydrocarbons into the atmosphere." He adds that it's a case of "the health of many versus the wealth of a few."

Against that wealth stands a movement of the 99% -- farmers, physicists, journalists, teachers, librarians, innkeepers, brewery owners, and engineers. "In Middlefield we're nothing special," says Kelly Branigan, a realtor who last year founded a group called Middlefield Neighbors. "We're just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this. It's inspiring, it's awesome, and it's America -- its own little revolution."

Last year, Middlefield became one of New York's first towns to use the humblest of tools, zoning ordinances, to beat back fracking. Previously, that had seemed like an impossible task for ordinary people. In 1981, the state had exempted gas corporations from New York's constitutionally guaranteed home rule under which town ordinances trump state law. In 2011, however, Ithaca-based lawyers Helen and David Slottje overturned that gas-cozy law by establishing that, while the state regulates industry, towns can use their zoning powers to keep it out. Since then, a cascade of bans and moratoria -- more than 140 in all -- have protected towns all over New York from high-volume frack drilling. 

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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.  Its residents typify the grassroots resistance of upstate New York.

"I'm very skeptical that multinational corporations have the best interests of communities at heart," Don Barber, Caroline's Supervisor, told me recently. "The federal government sold [Americans] out when they exempted fracking from the Clean Water and Air Acts," he added.  "Federal and state governments are not advocating for the civil society. There's only one level left. That's the local government, and it puts a tremendous load on our shoulders."

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.

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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.

Stealth Invasion

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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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