Dec 11, 2013
Fracking Gets Its Own Occupy Movement
Posted on Jan 25, 2012
By Ellen Cantarow, TomDispatch
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
This is a story about water, the land surrounding it, and the lives it sustains. Clean water should be a right: there is no life without it. New York is what you might call a “water state.” Its rivers and their tributaries only start with the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, and the Susquehanna. The best known of its lakes are Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, Lake George, and the Finger Lakes. Its brooks, creeks, and trout streams are fishermen’s lore.
Far below this rippling wealth there’s a vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale. Stretching through southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, the shale contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life that died 400 million years ago. Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a technology invented by Halliburton Corporation: high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—“fracking” for short.
Fracking uses prodigious amounts of water laced with sand and a startling menu of poisonous chemicals to blast the methane out of the shale. At hyperbaric bomb-like pressures, this technology propels five to seven million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water a mile or so down a well bore into the shale.
Up comes the methane—along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals and other substances that were also in the shale, among them radioactive elements and carcinogens. There are 400,000 such wells in the United States. Surrounded by rumbling machinery, serviced by tens of thousands of diesel trucks, this nightmare technology for energy release has turned rural areas in 34 U.S. states into toxic industrial zones.
At a time when the International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil-fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the Earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its own story. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes: eleven in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.
But for once, this story isn’t about tragedy. It’s about a resistance movement that has arisen to challenge some of the most powerful corporations in history. Here you will find no handsomely funded national environmental organizations: some of them in fact have had a cozy relationship with the gas industry, embracing the industry’s line that natural gas is a “bridge” to future alternative energies. (In fact, shale gas suppresses the development of renewable energies.)
New York’s “Little Revolution”
While most anti-fracking activists have been responding to harms already done, New York State’s resistance has been waging a battle to keep harm at bay. Jack Ossont, a former helicopter pilot, has been active all his life in the state’s environmental and social battles. He calls fracking “the tsunami issue of New York. It washes across the entire landscape.”
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, terms the movement “the biggest since abolition and women’s rights in New York.” This past November, when the Heinz Foundation awarded Steingraber $100,000 for her environmental activism, she gave it to the anti-fracking community.
Arriving in the state last October, I discovered a sprawl of loosely connected, grassroots groups whose names announce their counties and their long-term vision: Sustainable Otsego, Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, Chenango Community Action for Renewable Energy, Gas-Free Seneca, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Catskill Mountainkeeper. Of these few (there are many more), only the last has a paid staff. All the others are run by volunteers.
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