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New York's Victory Against Big Gas: Frackers, Get Packing

New York's Victory Against Big Gas: Frackers, Get Packing
Thu, 2/14/2013 - by Peter Rugh

A major battle in America's frack war came to a head in New York this week. Opponents of drilling in the state, which sits on hefty reserves of methane gas locked within the Marcellus Shale formation, mobilized by the thousands to successfully maintain a 2010 moratorium on hydraulic fracturing -- a victory that could have wide implications on the fight to curb and ultimately ban the extraction method elsewhere in the country.

The moratorium initially went into effect under former New York Governor David Paterson. And the state's current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who received more energy industry contributions than any gubernatorial candidate in the 2010 election, was expected to lift the moratorium by the end of this month.

But in order to issue drilling permits, Cuomo needs a "doctor's note": a review of fracking's potential health impacts, issued by the New York Department of Health. The Department of Environmental Conservation must receive the health study before it can finalize its environmental impact review of proposed fracking regulations.

And here's the news: the deadline for the DEC to publish the impact statement came, and passed, on Wednesday after the Department of Health announced it was delaying the release of its study. Without the doctor's slip it is reasonably certain Cuomo will miss the February 27 deadline by which he must file rules for fracking.

If February 27 comes and goes without regulations being filed, the approval process begins anew.

Interestingly, Cuomo and his administration have kept mum on the subject in the run-up to the deadline. The governor made no mention of fracking in his State of the State address last month, even as delegates entering the convention center where Cuomo delivered his speech passed several thousand protesters chanting the words “Ban fracking now!”

Nor was there any mention of fracking from DEC chief Joseph Martens when he read from a prepared statement about the department's activities at a budget hearing before Albany lawmakers earlier this month. On that occasion, a large crowd of drilling opponents were repeatedly warned to pipe down in the chamber. But pressed by lawmakers, Martens refused to say where his department stood on the issue.

If you want a hint, consider that emails obtained last June by the non-profit Environmental Working Group revealed that the DEC's deputy commissioner, Steven Russo, had submitted potential regulations to lobbyists representing hydrofracking drillers.

Despite what felt like a sustained campaign to publicly ignore them, anti-frack activists are now breathing a little easier. “I feel like we overcame a huge hurdle,” said Russell Mendell, who helped organize a large demonstration against drilling last summer in front of the Governor's mansion.

Fracking wouldn't be under the scrutiny it is in New York, added Mendell, without the massive public pressure that's been put on Cuomo and the health and conservation regulators in his administration. Hundreds of rallies have taken place across the state. At a policy summit the governor hosted last summer in Manhattan, activists dropped a 30-foot banner from the Sheraton Hotel that read, “Cuomo, Don't Frack New York!” More than 6,000 people have pledged to take nonviolent direct action should he issue permits.

Adding to the likelihood that the February 27 deadline will be missed, the DEC received more than 200,000 written comments, the bulk of them from drilling opponents, during its recent public commenting period on proposed regulations. The agency will have to respond to each comment before regulations can be issued.

The groundswell of resistance has countered more than $3 million that companies with a stake in hydrofracking have pumped into the state to purchase influence. Cuomo himself has reportedly received between $150,000 and $200,000 from the pro-drilling lobby.

As DeSmog recently revealed, Cuomo's top aid Lawrence Schwartz owns stock in several energy companies whose share price will rise or fall depending on whether or not fracking in New York goes ahead.

And then there's Cuomo's own lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York. As Kevin Conner, co-director of the Public Accountability Initiative, writes:

"Four Committee backers identified in the press have a stake in the fracking debate, either directly or through businesses they represent: Con Edison, the Partnership for New York City, the Business Council of New York State, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. These organizations are major Committee backers, having either donated directly or 'bundled' significant contributions to the Committee."

And those are just the Committee donors we know about. If you're a fracker and you want to pass funds Cuomo's way, the “Committee to Save the 1%” will help you with that, says the Public Accountability Initiative. Millions of dollars from undisclosed special interests have been funneled into the group's coffers from other Wall Street players looking to profit from the frack market.

Fracking in context

The hydraulic fracturing technique -- which involves pumping a highly pressurized concoction of water, sand and hundreds of toxic chemicals, known as frack fluid, deep into the earth to break up shale deposits and release natural gas -- has been around for decades. But it was considered too costly to undertake due to federal environmental standards; that is, until Congress passed legislation in 2005 exempting the fracking practice from regulations protecting air and water.

Drafted by former Halliburton executive and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the Halliburton Loop-Hole, as it came to be known, shifted much of the burden of regulating fracking from the federal to the state and municipal level.

Local officials at that time had no idea what was about to hit them. Industrial scale drilling spread to 31 states, and into regions poorly equipped to monitor what was going into the ground. Gas production has shot up 20% since 2005, and oil production by 10%.

Yet in some of the most densely fracked regions of America, there remains on average only one inspector for every 2,000 wells. In New Mexico, the ratio is one inspector per 4,500 wells.

Along with frack fluid, too, have come greenbacks. Lots of them. Money from hydrofracking interests has decided political races that came down to a few thousand dollars, and has lured many ranchers and farmers to lease disused lands where crop yields were precarious.

However, many of those who decided to lease to drillers have subsequently found their water contaminated (and in some cases inflammable) and the air on their property thick with cancerous hydrocarbons. With vampiric efficiency, fracking firms have managed to suck oil and gas out of the land and left the rest to rot, while the bulk of profits have evaded the communities.

And nowhere has the process of gas industry colonization been more fruitful than in the Empire State's southern neighbor, Pennsylvania. The state rests on the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin, which stretches from the southern United States all the way north to Ontario and contains an estimated 163-313 trillion cubic feet worth of gas.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett took over $1 million dollars in contributions from gas drillers during his 2010 campaign. In return he's been doling out favors, vetoing legislation that would impose taxes on gas extraction, and issuing thousands of permits with little environmental oversight.

Drillers would no doubt love to overtake New York in the way they've conquered Pennsylvania. But events this week demonstrated people's power to organize and beat back entrenched fossil fuel interests.

Now it's time for communities engaged everywhere in grassroots campaigns for ecological and social justice to do the same.

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