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Ellen Cantarow: "Little Revolution," Big Fracking Consequences

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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.

Activists weren't the only ones with a keen interest in the SGEIS, however.  Documents obtained through New York's Freedom of Information Law indicate that, in mid-August 2011, six weeks before the DEC made its statement public, the agency shared detailed summaries of it with gas corporation representatives, giving the industry a chance to influence the final document before it went public.

Two days before the SGEIS was opened to public scrutiny, an attorney for the Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation and other companies asked regulators to "reduce or eliminate" a requirement for the sophisticated testing of fracking fluids.  Such fluids are laden with toxins, including carcinogens, which storms could wash away from drilling sites -- an especially grim prospect given the catastrophic flooding experienced in the state over the last three years.

At the same time, two upstate New York journalists revealed that Bradley Field, the head of the DEC's Mineral Resources Division, had signed a petition that denied the existence of climate change.  Formerly of Getty Oil and Marathon Oil, Field also serves as the state's representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council, both industry fronts which maintain that fracking is benign.  As this was coming to light, state officials anonymously leaked word of a plan to open five counties on New York's border with Pennsylvania to fracking as long as communities there supported the technology.

This is What Autocracy Looks Like   

In May 2012, Dewey Decker and his board passed a resolution pledging that the town of Sanford would take no action against fracking, while awaiting the decision of the DEC. There was no prior notice. Citizens were left to read about it in their local papers. "You wake up the next morning and say, "What happened?'" commented Doug Vitarious, a retired Sanford elementary school teacher.

In June, a headline in the Deposit Courier, a Sanford paper, read "Local Officials in Eligible Communities Approve Pro-Drilling Resolutions." Accompanying the piece was a map of towns that had passed such resolutions. The subscript under the map read: "Joint Landowners Coalition of N.Y." The JLCNY is the state's grassroots gas industry ally, whose stated mission is to "foster... the common interest... as it pertains to natural gas development." Decker represents the organization in Sanford.

During the summer, Vitarious and other citizens asked their town board where the resolution had originated, but were met with silence. They requested that the board rescind the resolution and conduct a referendum.  Decker refused.

By the end of August, 43 towns in the region had passed resolutions modeled on one appearing at the JLCNY website. It stipulates that at the local level "no moratorium on hydraulic fracturing will be put in place before the state of New York has made it's [sic] decision." Under New York's Freedom of Information Law, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the National Resources Defense Council obtained records from Sanford and two other towns about how they achieved their objectives. The records, says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, "detail contacts between gas industry operatives and officials."

Two months before superstorm Sandy swamped parts of the state, Sue Rapp, a psychotherapist from the town of Vestal, told me that flooding worries her as much as anything else about fracking. Upper New York State suffered flooding in 2010 and 2011. And then came Sandy.  Floods turn millions of gallons of fracking waste-water for which there is no safe storage into streams of poisons that wash into waterways.

Unlike Sanford's board, Vestal's has not formally blocked debate. It has heard arguments for a moratorium by Rapp and an organization she co-founded, Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VERSE), as well as pleas for a moratorium by physicians and academics. Its reaction, however, has simply been to sit on its hands, waiting for the DEC and Cuomo to make a final decision. This amounts to adopting the JLCNY position in all but formal vote.   "What is happening?" asked Rapp rhetorically at a demonstration in Binghamton this past September.  "They are trying to shut us down. But we do vote and we will vote. We do not constitute [what pro-drillers call] the tyranny of the majority, but simply the majority. That is called democracy."

Demonstrations against Cuomo's frack plan, which drew thousands to Washington D.C., Albany, and elsewhere in New York, included pledges to commit sustained acts of civil disobedience should the governor carry out plans to open the Pennsylvania border area of the state to fracking. At the end of September, the New York Times announced that Cuomo had retreated from his June stance. The report credited the state's grassroots movement for his change of mind.  Legendary for his toughness and political smarts, the governor will confront a political challenge in the coming months. Either he will please gas-industry supporters or his Democratic base. Whichever way he goes, it could affect his chances for the White House.

The stakes, however, are far larger than Cuomo's presidential aspirations.  Opening any part of the state to fracking will certainly damage the local environment.  More importantly, a grassroots win in New York State could open the door to a nationwide anti-fracking surge.  A loss might, in the long run, result in a cascade of environmental degradation beyond the planet's ability to cope.  As unlikely as it sounds, the fate of the Earth may rest with the residents of Middlefield, Caroline, Vestal, and scores of tiny villages and small towns you've never heard of.

"All eyes are on New York," says Chris Burger, a former Broome County legislator and one of a small group who persuaded New York's last governor, David Paterson, to pass the state's moratorium on fracking. "This is the biggest environmental issue New York has ever faced [and not just] New York, the nation, and the world. If it's going to be stopped, it will be stopped here." 

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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 Interviews (more...)
 

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