Musings: Battle Over Fracturing In New York State Is Ramping Up
The prolific Marcellus shale formation that blankets Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the eastern portion of Ohio also extends into western and southern areas of New York State. In response to a strong and vocal environmental movement in these regions, New York instituted a moratorium against the use of hydraulic fracturing to tap the potential hydrocarbon resources deposited in these areas. One major political issue was concern about potential contamination of drinking water sources that supply New York City, so the area surrounding the water reservoirs was ruled off-limits for any drilling or fracturing. That ban did little to end the anti-fracturing opposition in the region located along the northern border of Pennsylvania, especially the liberal hotbed of Ithaca at the tip of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of the state.
A four-year study of the risks associated with the use of hydraulic fracturing to tap the oil and gas resources in the Marcellus and Utica formations of New York State is coming to a conclusion. A draft proposal suggested limited state approval for drilling and fracturing, but the final study's conclusions have not been released nor has there been a vote on the issue. Expectations are that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will advocate allowing limited drilling to go forward, but it will require a vote of the legislature, which is not due to return to Albany until January 2013.
According to an article in Rolling Stone magazine, a New York Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson wrote in response to an email request for comment that "Our review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing is continuing and no decisions have been made." The representative went on to comment that the department has been responding to 80,000 comments it received on the draft report and recommendation. One of the latest and arguably most high-profile groups to oppose hydraulic fracturing is the Artists Against Fracking Coalition based in New York City and founded by Yoko Ono, wife of the late Beatle John Lennon, and her son, musician Sean Lennon. The group held a press conference a couple of weeks ago to highlight its opposition to ending in anyway the ban against hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Ms. Ono indicated that she had sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo asking for his support against relaxing the restrictions against fracturing. The coalition's opposition was further highlighted by an op-ed published by The New York Times and written by Sean Lennon.
Sean Lennon's op-ed focused on the idyllic surroundings of his family's farm in northern Delaware County at the edge of the Catskill Mountains and where the water flowing in a neighboring stream, Ouleout Creek, flowed north into the Susquehanna River. The farm was bought by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the early 1970s before Sean was born. According to Sean Lennon, his parents rejected the East Hampton, Long Island transformation undertaken by the Studio 54 crowd in favor of a more bucolic lifestyle of amateur dairy farmers. Sean Lennon believes that all his memories and enjoyment of the farm will be lost with the arrival of the oil and gas companies. The imagery in his letter is powerful – "land in an area that is now on the verge of being destroyed," "the world 'clean' takes on a disturbingly Orwellian tone," [referring to natural gas being "sold as clean energy"], and "Fracking for shale is in truth dirty energy." From these phrases flows a more fact-filled and authority-citing op-ed that questions the long-term safety of hydraulic fracturing.
Sean Lennon and his mother stake out the high moral ground against the dirty energy and polluting chemicals and poisonous methane released by the drilling and fracturing of the Marcellus shale. Backed by the artist, musician and filmmaker members of the coalition, including such prominent figures as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Lady Gaga, Jimmy Fallon, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Julianne Moore, Uma Thurman, Hugh Jackman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Mark Ruffalo and Olivia Wilde the anti-fracturing, anti-shale and anti-energy movement is a powerful force.
In his op-ed, Sean Lennon cited America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) for having spent $80 million in a publicity campaign promoting the energy and economic benefits of natural gas and shale gas. He pointed to ANGA's use of the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton that worked for the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s promoting the safety of smoking. ANGA weighed in with a tweet that was picked up by entertainment.time.com that said, "Sean Lennon's @nytimes piece on #fracking is far more art than science. Allow us to fact check: bit.ly/O0lODp."
A few days later ANGA issued a statement that the web site extracted from: "Many of us at ANGA are huge fans of the Beatles and the Lennon legacy and so it gives us no pleasure to say that in describing his world of honeybees and raspberries Sean echoes his father's more imaginative periods and does not seem inclined toward a serious discussion about natural gas… Sean claims natural gas could somehow 'render the climate unlivable' and 'raise the price of food and make coastlines unstable for generations.' Natural gas can do all that? Are the New York Times editorial page fact checkers all at the beach this week?"
Further to the issue of the economic benefits of natural gas, in an interview following the coalition's recent press conference, Sean Lennon commented, "This is not going to bring jobs to America and save our economy." He went on to say, "Once they destroy one community, they move on to the next." This line of attack is reminiscent of the war waged against Wal-Mart and its program to build stores in more rural communities several years ago. That campaign framed the issue as Wal-Mart destroying Main Street shopkeepers, i.e., a Goliath stomping on Davids, a charge that academic studies have shown to be false.
Unfortunately, for all the money and effort expended by the energy industry, its public relations image remains poor making it more difficult to fight the environmental and "dirty energy" opposition groups, which tend to have PR-smart organizers and high-profile activist members. The energy industry needs to become more pro-active earlier when engaging "public perception" issues, and it needs to become more creative when waging these campaigns. The upcoming election is critical for the future direction of the country, and it is equally as critical for the future of energy in the United States.
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