Last November, several hundred protesters shuffled into the Tribeca Performing Arts Center to rally against hydraulic fracturing. Environmentalists, actors and concerned citizens gave three-minute soliloquys outlining their opposition to the gas-drilling technique. One Brooklyn resident, Alex Greenleaf, even sang a two-minute protest song.
Greenleaf was just one of 60,000 people to submit a public comment to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the government agency in charge of coming up with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, regulations. Riverkeeper was one environmental group lobbying to get people to attend events like the one in lower Manhattan last fall.
Riverkeeper, a clean water advocate, is now shifting its focus from grassroots organizing to pushing lawmakers in Albany. In a new effort for the group, they are lobbying elected officials to support a home rule law that would allow individual towns to ban fracking in their area, a Property Owner’s Bill of Rights, as well as a statewide moratorium on fracking until June 2013.
Kate Hudson, an attorney for Riverkeeper, the group’s top priority is helping pass a home rule law that would give cities more autonomy.
“Towns are in the dark,” she said. “They may support a ban, but they are afraid they will get sued.” Ithaca, Syracuse and Cooperstown currently have bans in place, while several other localities have proposed similar legislation. As of right now, according to Hudson, those bans are paper-thin without cover from the state. Hudson has found one ally from an unlikely source, State Senator Greg Ball (R – Patterson). He is among a minority of Senate Republicans who oppose fracking.
Ball has sponsored both the Property Owner’s Bill of Rights and an outright ban in the state until 2013. A latecomer to the environmentalist position, Ball made up his mind after visiting a few Pennsylvania family farms in Bradford County last summer. Their farms’ property value declined by 90 percent, he said, because of diesel run off from a fracking platform on their land.
“I’m a Republican and there are those in my conference that want to push, push, push this. But they need to go down and meet with these families,” he said to a town hall audience in Milan in August. “To lay out the carpet, to have no regulations, we can’t allow that.”
Republicans, in general, supporting pro-fracking laws because they believe it leads to economic expansion. Democrats are in favor of tougher regulations and more environmental studies. New York has had a ban on fracking since 2008.
The Property Owner’s Bill of Rights would force gas-drilling companies to disclose all chemicals used, pay property owners one and a half times the market rate for their land and give landholders free medical monitoring for life. The bill is being debated in committee.
While Riverkeeper and other environmental groups cheer Ball’s efforts, others see his legislation as cumbersome and overbearing. Tom West, an Albany-based lawyer who represents Anschutz Exploration Corporation – a Denver based drilling company, believes that natural gas is the key to America’s future energy independence. And fracking is necessary to retrieve it.
“This is going to happen in New York because we are the only place in the country that has not embraced the shale revolution,” West said.
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing forces millions of gallons of water and chemicals into rock beneath the Earth’s surface – Marcellus Shale in this case -causing cracks in the rocks from which natural gas emerges.
West said a home rule law would be ineffective because companies drill based on where the gas is, not which localities allow for drilling or not.
Moreover, he said potential health problems are “overblown by mythical proportions.” Common sense regulations for well construction and fines for gas companies that break the law will inoculate New Yorkers from environmental fall out, he said.
Clean Growth Now, a pro-fracking organization consisting of small businesses and labor, agrees with West that any permits allowing fracking should be accompanied by strict oversight by the state. With so much money and economic development at stake, $250 billion according to it’s website, the group believes that the state has no other choice.
Riverkeeper is not so sure. Hudson thinks that if the DEC compiles a socio-economic impact analysis, which has not been done, they would find job losses in sectors such as tourism and agriculture.
In either case, the decision will come down to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He did not mention fracturing in his recent State of the State speech and the DEC has pushed back multiple deadlines so they can sift through 60,000 public comments.
“The people I talk to in the DEC say that compared to last spring, there is a lot less pressure on them to put out reports,” said Hudson, speaking on her own behalf, not for Riverkeeper.
West, however, cannot envision the Cuomo administration committing an “economic blunder” by eschewing an opportunity to create jobs in a struggling economy.
“I don’t think the governor is going to walk away from it.”