Saturday, October 06, 2012

To Frack or not to Frack NYS: That is not the question.


By now, regardless of where you stand on Fracking in New York State, you’re probably getting weary of it. Four years ago few of us heard of Fracking (slang for hydraulic fracturing), and now it permeates our media. On either end of this issue (for there is almost no middle ground), all have marshaled their best arguments and continually hone them to convince the few who still haven’t made up their minds. Added to all that are the daily updates—delays, new scientific findings, public health issues, moratoriums, rallies, and the eerie subliminal signals by our governor that leave the public frantic as to where he is leaning at any given moment.

However, bored or not, we are at a critical point, like our ancestors were back in the early 1800’s when Clinton’s ditch (the Erie Canal), was being considered. Back then many feared that the fertile soils of our Rochester, NY region would remain unproductive because moving produce took too much time, cost, and energy to get them to market. It was thought that a canal could help move tons of grains quickly and cheaply across the state and eventually the world. And it did just that. New York State became the Empire State.

Few today think the canal was a bad idea. But it did not go off without a hitch. The canal wreaked havoc on what is now the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, one of the major wetlands and migratory marshes in our country, by lowering the water levels of some 80 square miles of wetlands by 12 feet. Also, in the rush to develop the canal, a swath of dead trees were left to rot, giving our state for awhile the unworldly look of biological destruction. However, the first travelers on the canal were delighted because the horrors of the wilderness had been beaten back; they reveled in what looked to them as the road to European-like modernity. Whatever the negative externalities or reservations the public had then about the canal, today the benign ditch that meanders across our state is often heralded as one of our state’s greatest accomplishments.

But that was a different world. The canal was officially completed in 1825. From that point to the present, the planet’s carbon dioxide concentration went from 280 parts per million (ppm) to today’s 394ppm, when 350ppm is considered by climate experts to be safe. Or, use this calculation:

“The global average surface temperature rose 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.1 to 1.6° F) between 1906 and 2005, and the rate of temperature increase has nearly doubled in the last 50 years.” from NASA Earth Observatory

Comparing the canal with Fracking, as a boom for our economy, conveniently forgets 187 years of spectacular change. New York State has millions of more folks than 1825, far less clean water, far less fish and wildlife, far more invasive species, far more man-made toxins, far more impermeable surfaces, and far less biodiversity, adding up to a land far less resilient to human machinations. And New York State is warming.

It is the success of the canal perhaps that causes many to believe Fracking will create jobs and transform New York State once again, this time by providing trillions of tons of natural gas and recreating us into a major player in world economics. This is a dangerous delusion. What makes the Fracking issue different from the heady days of canal building are the accumulated environmental issues and Climate Change that have transformed our understanding of our own role in the biological system that keeps us alive. We don’t get to have deniability anymore when it comes to our environmental responsibility.

Introducing Fracking as a job recession solution in a time of Climate Change is like starting a war with Iraq after 9/11, a country which had nothing to do with the attack: You wouldn’t think of doing either unless you already had a plan to do them in the first place, suddenly finding an opportunity to use these catastrophes as excuses to push your agenda. Natural gas as a transitional fuel only makes sense if you are actually transitioning to renewable energy. That is not only not happening, the tax incentives for wind and solar are about to expire at the end of this year, while the fossil fuel industry continues to enjoy billions in tax subsides each year.

The cries for jobs that can only be created by Fracking maniacally omit that these jobs will threaten our water and warm our planet more. They dismiss that many more useful, sustainable and productive jobs can be had with renewable energy. In the four years that Fracking has come to our attention, there is much to be suspicious about this industry. Evidence accumulates that Fracking is not safe for our environment, that what rules they do follow are too lax to prevent them from polluting, that their undisclosed chemicals have already contaminated a Wyoming lake, that they are a rapacious industry ready to take land when they cannot buy it, that they haven’t cleaned up after normal drilling, and an industry so in a hurry to drill and so dismissive of public health concerns that scientists must hurry to establish a water quality baseline before Fracking begins.

BTW: Speaking of the Montezuma Refuge and its thousands of acres of marshes for migratory birds and a major wetland, our government has its own concerns about near-by Fracking.

“Oil and gas reserves are currently extracted from shale using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (also called fracking) (see EIA 2012 for a more thorough discussion of how oil and gas are produced from shale). Environmental effects of these methods are not well documented at this time; however, there are concerns about potential effects particularly related to water resources. USGS (2009) has identified three major concerns related to hydraulic fracturing: 1) it requires substantial amounts of water for well construction, 2) movement of heavy equipment during well construction in rural areas can degrade small watersheds, and 3) large quantities of potentially contaminated water and fluids recovered from wells need to be disposed of safely. In addition, there is some concern that injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing into deep wells (one method of disposal) can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage (USGS 2009). As with more conventional oil and gas operations, there are also concerns about potential negative effects from gas well blowouts, infrastructure development, and water and soil contamination from transport, storage, and disposal of chemicals and waste (Zoback et al. 2010). Pages 2-39 & 2-40) Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment May 2012 – US Fish and Wildlife Service.

We cannot keep exploiting our environment the way we have in our past, as the accumulated consequences of dumping toxins and warming are catching up with us. Our present economics have failed us. Only when we face this truth will we shift to a sustainable economy—one that rewards environmental security as well as economic rewards.

The Fracking moratoriums that have sprung up around the state give testimony to the reservations that millions of New Yorkers have about this new threat. For now most of the moratoriums have held, but just this week in Binghamton, one such Fracking moratorium was overturned , a decision that has thrown self-determination for our communities into question.

As the moment for decision arrives on Fracking, we have a far greater understanding our how our environment works than our ancestors. With this knowledge comes responsibility. It demands that we think before we give into the same arguments that convinced our ancestors. Because of this knowledge, and the massive transformations that have occurred in our state in the past two hundred years, doing something as potentially disruptive to our environment as Fracking must be considered in the context of this new planetary responsibility. We are not simply desperate for jobs. We are also responsible for the sustainability of our environment for our children and other species.

The question that we should be asking ourselves at this time is not whether to Frack New York State. Rather we should be questioning how our energy use relates to our environment as it becomes less resilient to man’s disruptions during Climate Change. In the last two hundred years there has been a sea-change in our environment and our understanding of it—acting like pioneers in the wasted marshes of New York will no longer do.

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