Saturday, October 20, 2012

The great 2012 non-accomplishment for Rochester, NY area media - Fracking

Every year Rochester City Newspaper puts out its Best of Rochester Series attempting to highlight some incredible local accomplishments.  It’s a good idea to pause once a year and see what amazing things a community so gifted with universities, technology, and artists can do.  However, somewhat buried in this report is the acknowledgement of the most important, but ignored, story of 2012: Local News Story Ignored in 2012 - Fracking.  This incredible non-accomplishment is worth contemplating for a moment. 

Try to suspend for a moment your awareness of the controversies surrounding Fracking (slang for hydraulic fracturing) and focus on its newsworthiness. Try channeling Walter Cronkite -- consider what should be editorial objectivity on an issue as contentious as Fracking—not your opinion. 

Note: I’m not going to pummel you with my opinion on Fracking—at least right now.  Although I do beg your patience on this one caveat:  If your opinion on Fracking in New York State is that you just don’t care, then you are either too ignorant of the subject to know what you are saying, or just too craven.  If for example, you had called up an airline company and tried to book a flight out of an American city on the evening of September 11, 2001 and started crabbing at the attendant because she said there were no flights, we can forgive the attendant for hanging up on you. Sometimes some opinions are just too ridiculous to consider.  We’ll put aside sheer lunacy for the moment.

To be for or against Fracking in New York State based on your beliefs or your sense of priorities is one thing; to be uninformed about this issue because the Rochester region’s local media has ignored it is quite another.  No objective position on the imminent lifting of the moratorium on Fracking in New York State would rationally conclude that it wasn’t important, wasn’t worth adequately informing all our state’s communities, including Monroe County.  You might like the idea of Fracking, you might not, but you wouldn’t say that it doesn’t concern us and that we shouldn’t pay attention to it.

Objectively then, without pandering to either side on the Fracking issue in our region, here are some of the reasons why Fracking should garner continual front-page attention in our local media (as it often does in the southern tier of our state, the purported ‘sacrifice zone’), complete with comprehensive investigations, not tomorrow, but now, immediately.  Waiting for the consequences of Fracking to play themselves out in our county will be too late. Every reasonable person in Monroe County should want the answers to these questions before any Fracking begins:

  • In Monroe County we need to know how much gas Fracking companies might possibly drill for in our area.  Our county lies above the Utica Shale, which is one of the shales included in the Revised Draft SGEIS on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program that will shape the legal framework for Fracking in our state.  As this report--Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Ordovician Utica Shale of the Appalachian Basin Province, 2012--recently completed by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests there are “38 trillion cubic feet of gas, and 208 million barrels of natural gas liquids” in parts of the Utica Shale but no word of gas amounts directly under our region.  “We don’t know because we haven’t test-drilled.” Is not an adequate answer.
  • Even if it becomes certain that our region won’t be Fracked, it is uncertain if our county will engage in ancillary Fracking activities (Fracking waste disposal in our waste water treatment plants, landfills, or along county roads and properties).  Because the Fracking industry enjoys special exemptions, including the so-called "Halliburton Loophole" sidestepping the Clean Water Act and other restrictions, our region’s public needs to know what environmental and public health risks might be on our horizon.
  • Whether we Frack in this region or just engage in ancillary Fracking activities, we need to know how our public roads and bridges might be impacted by the high-volume, heavy trucking this industry requires.  Will our tax burden on our local infrastructure increase as a result of New York State’s decision to Frack?
  • We need to know if there is any possibility that Hemlock Lake, which exists in the Marcellus Shale and provides our region with much of our clean fresh drinking water, might be threatened.
  • In the light of studies on Climate Change and how that will affect our water cycle, including an increase in late summer and early fall droughts, we need to know how much of our fresh water might eventually be required—even if Fracking or its ancillary activities is not practiced in our region.
  • We need to know, given reports about the massive release of methane gas in the Fracking process, Fracking’s relationship to Climate Change. 
  • In order to make a responsible decision on whether to Frack in New York State, our region, along with all the other regions of our state, needs to know the chemical composition of fluids used in the Fracking process.
  • We need to know what potential jobs will become available and what possible effect Fracking will have on our local economy, both short and long term. 
  • We need to know what the exact state of our water quality—in our rivers, streams, and near-by lakes--before Fracking begins to establish a water-quality baseline so we can adequately assess the damage and assign responsibility when an accident occurs. 

I can think of many more important questions concerning Fracking and our region—including insurance related issues—but the above list alone reveals how much we don’t know about an industry that will change our state forevermore. Our local media has been dismissive at best and misleading at worst on an issue that will affect our region if Fracking is adopted in New York State.   

Granted, there is a media crisis out there.  Don’t take my word for it; look around, the media has indeed changed.  This week’s story about Newsweek’s move to drop print and go totally digital to save its investigative reporters highlights the crisis.

In short, there are fewer investigative stories (a news reporter surfing over to the NYS DEC site to find out what the DEC chief says about Fracking doesn’t count) being spread by more and more aggregative news-collecting web sites and applications and no money left for print media—because advertisers are giving up on that. But consider this; one of the most frightening things that the present media collapse portends are the nearly insurmountable hurdles, the almost impenetrable walls, our particular online news sources have created.  The new news environment has become an insularity of self-absorbed silos.  You can now live your life completely involved in sports or movies and not have a clue about Climate Change, Fracking, or who’s running for president.  Walter Cronkite is gone.  We’re on our own.

Even so, the whole point for the existence of local news, news pertaining to your community, should include stuff you need to know about. You need to know if your government is solvent, whether your leaders are committing crimes and betraying your trust.  Despite the local fascination with sports, construction delays, dog love and the innumerable festivals that engage our city, you need to know if there is a rash of diseases coming our way.  You need to know if your water is clean, if your air is breathable, and whether or not your environment is sustainable—able to be there for your kids.  Some stuff is just interesting, some other stuff is critical to know.  There’s a difference. 

If our local media has failed to adequately report on Fracking, one of the most important stories that will affect every single one of us in the Rochester, NY region, we have to question the reason for their continued existence.  If our local media editors are lying low on Fracking because they think they’re being ‘objective’, we must ask: in what sense they are using the word?  Going mum just as a major change comes to our region is not objectivity in any useful sense.  Why continue the delusion that watching local news is actually informing us of things we need to know if they are not actually doing that?  Why put yourself through all that reading and tube-gazing when at the end of the day you cannot drink the water?  What reasons can local media editors provide to explain this incredible dearth of information on Fracking?  Are they being paid by the fossil fuel industry to shut up?  Or are they merely afraid of boring the bejesus out of their paid subscribers and potential ad consumers? 

A very dangerous argument has crept into the Fracking issue in NYS, and the blame can be put squarely on local media.  The Fracking people believe that they have waited long enough for Governor Cuomo to decide on Fracking.  They really want the money promised them by Fracking leases on their land.  In fact, no they really haven’t waited all that long.  We are missing a lot of important information about our environment as it relates to Fracking and we as rational folks just as soon we get all the info we need.  We the people really don’t need to be hasty on this matter, and we really need to take the time to look before we jump. 

We the people should be able to depend on news that informs us of important stuff.  Distracted news gathering, with the media desperate for funding, is going to be a great challenge for an industry that used to compete with each other for real news, investigative journalism.  Throughout this media transformation, we still have to keep our eye on the ball.  We cannot depend on media the way we used to.  If you are only attending to a media that blinds you on critical issues, you, ultimately, are responsible.  If your local media is blinding you on important matters, stop consuming it, go find out what you need to know, even if the answer is not what you want to hear. 

The acceptance of Fracking in New York State would have a tremendous impact on our future.  The local media’s failure to cover this issue in full is an outrage.  I view this failure of local media on the issue of Fracking in New York State, and possibly our county, as a tragic microcosm of how our local media has failed to adequately inform us on most environmental issues, especially their failure to connect the dots between Climate Change and probable consequences of Climate Change in our region.  Also, the failure of local media to even mention a Fracking rally and a petition delivery to Monroe County legislature questions our media’s competency and integrity on a matter so critical to our region’s environment and public health: Are our local media editors pandering to the fossil fuel industry, their subscribers, or both?

Finally, some would say if you are ‘pro’ Fracking or ‘anti’ Fracking you cannot be objective on Fracking. I say that is the wrong heuristic because the focus of our attention should be on the health of our environment, not on the health of a particular industry. Our media needs to change their notion of ‘objectivity’ when it comes to environmental issues, especially as Climate Change becomes the lens through which we should view all environmental issues. Fracking, because it involves drilling for natural gas, will impact Climate Change. We are supposed to be informed about important issues by our media, not blinded by them.  If our local media is avoiding and failing to inform us on something as important as Fracking, do they deserve our trust? 

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