New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was most likely not expecting a cheesy magic act during a recent policy summit in New York City, but that is kind of what he got when two anti-fracking activists dressed in character as a magician and his assistant infiltrated the event. After the male half of the duo turned a glass of tap water green, he handed it to his willowy partner, who drank it and then convulsed theatrically as if she were being poisoned. The two were soon hustled out of the Sheraton conference room by security, but their act managed to call attention to activists' serious misgivings over plans to open up New York state to hydraulic fracturing a.k.a. "fracking." This destructive and largely unregulated process—already infamous for reeking environmental havoc in several parts of the country—is poised to become reality in the Empire State. And that would be a fracking shame.
What You Need to Know
"Fracking" first entered my own consciousness after a viewing of the 2010 award-winning Gasland documentary. Who could forget the arresting images of flammable tap water? Fracking is basically a drill-baby-drill method in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure are injected into dense shale rock formations to crack the rock and release natural gas. Gasland likens the process to man-made "mini earthquakes." And while fracking has actually been around for decades, the techniques, technologies and chemicals used to reach new, remote gas reserves are more intensive and riskier than conventional gas drilling.
The potential results of such radical techniques, according to New Yorkers Against Fracking, is that "millions of gallons of toxic wastewater will be produced from every new well, with about half remaining in the ground. This wastewater contains the chemicals used in fracking fluid, which have been shown to cause cancer, death, birth defects and other severe health problems." They add that "disposal of this wastewater has caused major problems. Conventional treatment facilities can’t treat it, meaning the contaminants just flow right through these facilities, into rivers and streams."
With billions of dollars at stake for energy companies, fracking's danger lies in the almost nonexistent regulations over it. After heavy lobbying, the 2005 Energy Policy Act offered the oil and gas industries sweeping exemptions from existing environmental protections including:
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Clean Water Act
- Clean Air Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
- Resource Conservation & Recovery Act
- Toxic Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
Where we are today
Cuomo claims that he has not made a final decision yet, and refuses to set a timetable. But fracking has powerful supporters. New York City's Mayor Bloomberg inserted himself into the debate this past week in an op-ed in which he pledged $6 million to the Environmental Defense Fund to set up "strong and reasonable" rules for the industry. And proponents do cite plentiful local jobs and energy independence from "terrorist" regimes as the upside to fracking. But what, really, is in it for the 99%?
Occupy Wall Street Environmental Solidarity organizer Peter Rugh argues that the forces representing the interests of the 1% are working hard to strike a Faustian bargain with the rest of us. "Gas companies and pro-fracking politicians, including the presidential candidates of both dominant political parties, tout fracking as a job creator. They expect the 99% to sacrifice the life of their local ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole in order to earn a livelihood. My question is, where are the jobs? The industry's jobs claims rest on what are widely believed to gross overestimations of methane deposits in shale. In fact, the Securities and Exchange Commission was even considering a probe, but backed down due to industry pressure."
"And what will the effect of fracking be in the long term? Once you've destroyed a region's agriculture, industrialized whole swaths of land, as we have seen in Pennsylvania, and the wells dry up, people are left with nothing. Goodbye tourism, wine, farming, fishing, hiking, camping. Hello smog, bottled water, and food that travels thousands of miles to your supermarket shelf and is pumped full of preservatives, rather than coming from your backyard." He adds, "If ecocide were a path to prosperity, the coal meccas of Appalachia would look like Beverly Hills."
Taking such risky measures to extract more fossil fuels is nothing new. The 2006 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the devastation caused by mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia are well-documented examples of what can go wrong in the quest for non-renewable energy sources. But New York has an opportunity to stop this before it even starts.
What to do?
Activists from within the Occupy Movement, along with allies in the environmental movement, are already hard at work planning nonviolent direct actions and signing pledges in the hopes of moving the governor to ban (or greatly limit) fracking before it is too late. Many speculate that Cuomo is planning a 2016 run for president, and would be reluctant to include poisoning his home state as a part of his legacy.
Fracked gas needs to travel over distances, and Occupy the Pipeline has set a direct goal to stop the construction of Spectra Energy's planned New Jersey-New York Expansion. Approved this past May, the pipeline is slotted to be built under the west side of New York City, adjacent to the heavily-touristed High Line. Spectra Energy is a Texas-based gas company backed by JP Morgan, Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America–the usual suspects.
Occupy the Pipeline claims that this volatile project has the potential to do far more harm than good. According to their website, "One of the dangers is that pipelines of this nature have a well documented history of exploding, causing loss of life and property. The proposed plan is to send this pipeline from NJ, underneath the Holland Tunnel and recreational, residential, business areas in NYC's West Village. The route goes under schools, playgrounds, work places, homes and sight-seeing places which would put thousands of people at risk of dying." The group organized a recent "Unwelcoming Commitee" action and march and shone a giant "Stop Spectra" image beside the High Line Park.
In addition to Occupy the Pipeline‘s ongoing work, Don't Frack New York has organized direct action aimed at Albany, and September 22nd's Global Frackdown will take a wide view of fracking as a worldwide threat.
It Really is Up to Us
There is, according to Rugh, "a widespread sentiment among our working group and other activists that waiting until Cuomo has already made his decision will be too late. Instead we need to exert the maximum amount of peaceful pressure that we can muster at this juncture before he makes his decision. That's what Environmental Solidarity and those who have affinity with us have been up to. And there are signs that is working."
"We have the potential to create another world in which we organize to mitigate climate change and other ecological crisis, provide meaningful and gainful employment to all, and preserve the earth and its resources for our children, but it is only possible if we struggle for it together."