by Jonathan Miller
Greetings from New York’s scenic Southern Tier, where the question of the season is not “iPad or Kindle?” but “To frack or not to frack?”
If you haven’t heard, fracking is a controversial gas drilling technique formally known as “horizontal high-volume hydraulic fracturing.” Unlike conventional drilling, in which energy companies basically poke straws into underground pools of natural gas, fracking involves squirting millions of gallons of chemically treated water into perforated L-shaped pipes to release tiny gas bubbles trapped in layers of rock buried thousands of feet below the surface. South-central New York sits on top of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, both of which contain trillions of cubic feet of gas.
Fracking has been going on for several years in other states, including nearby Pennsylvania, but not in New York. In 2008, then-governor David Paterson declared a moratorium on the process until the state environmental agency completed a thorough review of its social and environmental impacts.
Few issues have riled people here the way this one has. Public hearings have been raucous, with pro-drilling and anti-drilling forces busing in from far and wide. Arguments range from the highly technical to the deeply emotional. Recently the state’s environmental commissioner admitted that the whole business was much more complicated than he’d expected, and it may take another year before the state can start issuing permits.
For policy makers in Washington, domestic natural gas is a crucial component of a cleaner and more politically palatable energy mix. For the cash-starved New York state government, the prospect of an upstate gas boom is like manna from heaven. For many environmentalists and public health advocates, it’s an unfolding disaster. For rural communities sitting high above the gas deposits, it’s decision time.
State law gives local governments almost no power to regulate the gas and oil industries, but more than 50 New York counties, cities and towns have recently passed complete or partial bans on fracking. In many places, the discussion has been painful, revealing deep divisions between neighbors and even family members.
For Groundwork, I’ve been following the debate in the town of Caroline, New York, just a few miles southeast of where I live in Ithaca. With a population of just under 3,000, Caroline is divided in all the ways America is divided: rich and poor, white collar and blue collar, highly educated and not so educated, liberal and conservative, farmer and commuter, newcomer and old-timer, snowmobiler and cross-country skier. Zoom in a bit and you see how those dividing lines tangle and overlap.
How does a place like Caroline come to a collective decision about its future?
Mainly it talks. Then it votes.
Over the last several months, I’ve attended meeting after meeting, listening in as residents try to convince each other of their positions. I’ve sat down to talk with community leaders and others with a stake in the outcome. The tone throughout has been civil, but the barbs have often been sharp. Pro-drillers accuse the anti-drillers of NIMBY-ism and fear-mongering. Anti-drillers accuse the pro-drillers of putting their economic interests over the will of the majority.
As I watched the process unfold, it became clear that few minds were changing, and the decision would have to be made at the ballot box. The key was the five-member Town Board. Three members favored drilling while two opposed it. But two of the pro-drilling incumbents were up for re-election, and their challengers were from the anti-drilling camp. On November 8, more than half the town’s voters turned out for the most anticipated local election in memory. The results were dramatic. But are they the end of the story? Stay tuned!