Politicians have a knack for skirting issues which might cost them votes at the ballot box, or worse, campaign dollars on the road to election. Never has this been more apparent than in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to take a stand on the growing fracking debate.
Few environmental issues in recent memory have galvanized the opposing sides like hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has. Far from a distant national issue that has no resonance to the North Country, New York is one of 33 states in the Lower 48 where shale gas formations have been identified as targets for fracking. The massive and much coveted Marcellus and Utica formations cover all of western and much of central New York, lapping at the very foothills of the Adirondacks. And these are only the formations they have so far discovered. Could there be more in the mountains themselves?
Fracking’s history goes back to 1947, when it was first used on a well in Grant County, Kansas to stimulate gas production. Fracking itself is a technique used for extracting natural gas trapped in shale gas formations be injecting a myriad of chemicals and massive amounts of water into the ground, causing the shale to fracture, releasing the gas held in the shale. A technique called horizontal drilling, perfected in the early 1990s, then captures a portion of the newly released gas, and pumps it to the surface.
Two issues with fracking become obvious to anyone who doesn’t align themselves with the oil and gas industry. The first, is that these companies are not bound by the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and do not have to disclose what potentially deadly chemicals they are pumping into the ground. Most of these chemicals, which are trucked around the country to well sites, would generate a hazmat spill response if they were released on land. But because of lobbying, and deep national political penetration by individuals from the oil and gas industries (potential fodder for a later editorial), the fracking industry was written out of the SDWA. They simply do not have to say what chemicals they are pumping into the ground that was just fractured, and can thus seep throughout that ground.
Second, is the fact that the gasses trapped in the shale are suddenly released, and can course throughout the newly fractured shale wherever they meet a path of little resistance. Unlike classic oil drilling, where an underground pool of oil is extracted at a specific drilling point, fracking allows the gas to go virtually anywhere underground; into drinker water wells, to the surface to be released into the atmosphere, or back into the extraction point to be captured. A great deal of the gas is caught and extracted, but not all.
Antidotes abound of contaminated ground water, where people are able to set their tap water, or water in a stream, on fire. Incidents of sudden bizarre illnesses in people, livestock and wild animals cropping up suddenly around a cluster of wells abound as well. Unfortunately, until the federal government commissions a conclusive study of these incidents, they remain “antidotes,” and are dismissed by many as just that. How many antidotes constitute a fact? How many people have to die of cancer, or lose their home to contamination before it constitutes a public health emergency? The federal government jumped all over General Motors after a handful of people died as a result of alleged ignition issues. Likewise the spinach industry has barely recovered from a government overreaction to an e-coli outbreak a few years ago, but where is the government now? The fox is running the hen house, and the fox if getting rich doing it.
It is time for Gov. Cuomo to be the adult in the room, and admit that fracking is responsible for both environmental and personal destruction wherever it is used. Yes, we need to get out from under foreign fossil fuels, but at what cost? We can’t drill in Anwar, Alaska because it might harm some caribou, but we know that fracking does much worse, and it does it right in our back yards.
Proponents inevitably argue about the potential jobs and money that accompany these wells. Antidotally, a family here or there might make some money leasing their land to a company to frack, but its seldom the monetary boon its made out to be. It’s normally far from enough to abandon a contaminated house and start over again somewhere else. And, the family leasing their land for a well can’t guarantee that their neighbors’ wells, neighbors who were not paid by the gas company, won’t become contaminated.
Yes, people are put to work at these wells, and in trucking the chemicals, but they would also be put to work building less destructive environmental projects like wind farms. Much of north-western Clinton County is now covered by job and energy producing wind mills. As of press time today, they have yet to contaminate a single well.
We’re left to wonder yet again what type of political algorithm Gov. Cuomo is employing to make his decision on fracking in New York. Money versus votes, cheaper gas versus the safety of the people and the environment. It’s time for the governor to choose.