This opinion piece presents the opinions of the author.
On Friday, January 11, a 30-day public comment period in New York State on the issue of hydraulic fracturing ended, but not without a certain amount of high-drama. The wife and son of the late Beatles star John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, led a group of protestors on a visit to the Albany office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Dem) and the Department of Environmental Conservation. At the latter stop, the duo, who founded Artists Against Fracking last July, delivered 50 boxes reportedly containing 204,000 comments about hydraulic fracturing.
Around the same time, Ms. Ono had an op-ed published in the Albany Times Union in which she wrote, "My husband, John Lennon, and I bought a beautiful farm in rural New York more than 30 years ago. Like the rest of our state, this peaceful farming community is threatened by fracking for gas. She went on to say, “Governor Cuomo, please don’t frack New York. Don’t allow our beautiful landscapes to be ruined, or our precious and famous clean water to be dirtied."
Sean Lennon has made the point that his father’s home, which was purchased for its beauty and serenity, would be threatened by the possible construction of a pipeline to haul natural gas from Northeastern Pennsylvania (the Marcellus formation) to New York City and New England. While he is not stating that the property would be the site of drilling and fracturing activity, but the pipeline would be needed if fracturing was allowed to occur in the region near their home.
Gov. Cuomo has been wrestling with the fracking issue for over a year while watching upstate New York’s economy languish due to fallout from the financial crisis and resulting recession. In his recent State of the State message, Gov. Cuomo made the following point about the problems of that region. "We need an additional focus on upstate New York. There have been decades of decline in upstate New York. When you look at the job growth in upstate New York, frankly, it is sad and troubling."
The Governor has been reminded of the economic benefits of shale development from a leading Democrat, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (Dem), who allowed development of the Marcellus Shale in his state, which has contributed significantly to that state’s economic recovery. The economic benefits of shale’s development were recently pointed out by Rachael Colley and Joe Massaro, field directors with Energy in Depth, a public outreach campaign funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, who said, "The ‘state’ of New York State is grim. Natural-gas development could be the light at the end of the gloomy tunnel."
Gov. Cuomo says he is working on an overall energy development plan for the state and suggests that his silence on the issue and reluctance to release an environmental study on the health impacts from hydraulic fracturing should not be taken as a sign that he has reached a decision. He did, however, recently hire Richard L. Kauffman, a former adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to serve as New York’s new energy secretary. Some are interpreting the move as an indication that Gov. Cuomo is prepared to take dramatic steps on energy policy.
The Governor should recognize that a decision to support fracturing, even if restricted to just those few New York State counties that border the Pennsylvania shale development activity, will not be popular with many citizens such as those following Ms. Ono and Mr. Lennon. Ms. Ono told supporters and Rolling Stone magazine that "If they do this, there will be a class action, and the class action is going to hit everybody who is doing this. It’s going to go on and on and on. Do we want that?"
We’re not sure whether Gov. Cuomo was holding off his decision in anticipation that Matt Damon’s movie, Promised Land, would bring some clarity to the fracking issue. The much anticipated movie, which released a trailer last fall to tease potential viewers about the message of the film, arrived with a whimper – and not many positive reviews. We’ll leave the acting reviews to Hollywood-types, but having seen the movie during its second weekend of release, we suggest you save your $8 ticket money.
The movie is cute and delivers a twist at the end, which we interpreted as an attempt by Mr. Damon, who both co-authored the script and was the lead actor, to garner sympathy from the anti-fracking people in the audience. It is presented as a morality play with Mr. Damon as the "bad" guy who eventually becomes a "good guy only to suffer at the hands of both the owners of the land whose mineral rights he is trying to lease and his bosses at Global, the $9-billion-a-year natural gas company. The discussions about hydraulic fracturing are incomplete and largely inaccurate, so one should not hold out hope that the topic would be advanced by the movie.
In a movie of this type, you would expect some interesting scenes, characters and dialogue. There were a few, but often we wound up shaking our head at the illogical events and explanations or outright mischaracterization of facts. However, we found one scene early in the movie quite funny. As Mr. Damon and Frances McDormand, playing his assistant, were driving through the Pennsylvania country-side on the way to visit a local farmer, he comments on how the landscape looks like Kentucky. We laughed because when we first saw the scenery, my wife leaned over to me and said “it looks like Kentucky,” based on the farmland of the Whiskey Trail that we drove last year on our way to Rhode Island. Having Mr. Damon make the same claim literally seconds after my wife did was very funny.
The new year will certainly not lessen the focus on shale development and the role played by hydraulic fracturing. President Barack Obama’s emphasis on climate change and environmental stewardship in his inaugural address means the federal government will be energized to resolve the science of fracking and set forth a path to a cleaner and cooler environment. For a president focused on his legacy, this mission offers many opportunities to legislate, if not to govern through executive order, Mr. Obama’s preferred way to deal with an uncooperative Congress. Mr. Obama certainly hopes the message of his second inauguration day will be looked back upon much as how Walter Cronkite used to close his 1950s "You Are There" history shows: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times … and you were there."
G. Allen Brooks works as the Managing Director at PPHB LP. Reprinted with permission of PPHB.
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