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Oh Frack

by Miriam Axel-Lute on June 20, 2012


There are some contentious issues where there are arguments about the likely economic, environmental, and health effects where it’s tough to decipher, where the details are technical, where there are ambiguous studies with unclear motivations or funders behind them, where you understand why there is debate.

And then you have high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas—which involves injecting a proprietary mix of toxic chemicals horizontally into fractured beds of shale and would generate millions of gallons of wastewater. I can’t go over all the arguments and evidence against it in this short space, but it’s easy to find, and it’s not particularly ambiguous. The gas industry’s own studies show that the wells develop leaks within 15 years. There are numerous examples of the process contaminating drinking water from depths twice what is supposed to be a safe depth to try here. So many serious health problems have followed fracking that the top health official in Pennsylvania has asked the governor for $2 million to create a registry to track them.

We also have heard no answer for what will be done with toxic wastewater. If produced by any other industry, says Environmental Advocates of New York, fracking wastewater would be considered a hazardous waste and need to be tracked, but gas drilling waste, including the low-volume fracking already practiced in the state, is exempt.

This is 100 times more important to the health of our children than choosing nitrate-free hot dogs, or tofu pups. You can’t undo poisoned groundwater. You can’t gather in carcinogenic waste spread on roads or deposited in sewage treatment plants.

You also can’t recover poisoned farmland, dashed property values, lost tourism value, or dissipated interest in locating other economic development in your area once fracking has damaged the landscape. It is cruel and patronizing to prey upon the economic suffering of struggling farmers and the cultural tensions between older and newer residents of rural areas to cast supporting fracking seem like a blow for the working or agricultural class.

There are many things that can and should be done to support and protect our agricultural sector, from buying their produce for school lunches and state office cafeterias to buying land easements to improving infrastructure. If you want to enter the war against NIMBYs, take up wind power, where they don’t have a serious case.

The New York Times reports that while the state itself is split evenly on fracking (with trends heading toward more opposition), polls in the areas where fracking is likely to happen show overwhelming opposition to it. When a Governor decides to push something that has overwhelming local opposition, would run rough shod over local land use regulation (many localities have banned it), and would endanger his state’s economic and environmental viability for even the medium term for the possibility of a quick buck, who is he serving?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put a lot of energy into some of the less glamorous work of economic development—making one application for all the different economic development funds, for example, and leading the nation in looking at economic development regionally, which is the right scale. For him to then bow to this sketchy resurrection of the jobs vs. the environment fallacy rather than focusing on the long-term stuff would destroy the legacy he’s trying to build.

And it can only mean that he’s listening to people other than his voters. I mean, when the opposition is so strong in the places that are going to both bear the largest brunt of the costs and stand to reap the purported benefits, and there is so much scientific evidence lining up on the side of caution—you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to ask who is pulling the strings here. Have we forgotten the BP gulf disaster so soon? Are we so desperate to avoid facing the fact that we need to use less energy? Or is the actual conversation just not being had, because the interests of the energy industry are driving the agenda? My super PAC bets on the latter. Too bad it’s a little undercapitalized.

For better or worse, that leads right back to the larger fights about unlimited money in politics, corporations having “free speech,” and the need for a corporate death penalty. If it weren’t going to do permanent damage, it might be a great wake-up call in a few years when we look back and see how we were had. But New York’s Southern Tier does not deserve to be a sacrifice that large.