May 24, 2013
Posted on Nov 20, 2012
By Ellen Cantarow, TomDispatch
When it comes to those rules and fracking more generally, the DEC has a conflict of interest. While it is supposed to protect the environment, it is also tasked with regulating the very industries that exploit it through the agency’s Mineral Resources Division. Last year, the DEC received over 80,000 written comments on the latest draft of its guidelines for the industry, the 1,500-page “SGEIS” (which stands for “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement”). Drilling opponents outnumbered proponents 10 to 1. The deluge was a record in the agency’s history.
Activists weren’t the only ones with a keen interest in the SGEIS, however. Documents obtained through New York’s Freedom of Information Law indicate that, in mid-August 2011, six weeks before the DEC made its statement public, the agency shared detailed summaries of it with gas corporation representatives, giving the industry a chance to influence the final document before it went public.
Two days before the SGEIS was opened to public scrutiny, an attorney for the Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation and other companies asked regulators to “reduce or eliminate” a requirement for the sophisticated testing of fracking fluids. Such fluids are laden with toxins, including carcinogens, which storms could wash away from drilling sites—an especially grim prospect given the catastrophic flooding experienced in the state over the last three years.
At the same time, two upstate New York journalists revealed that Bradley Field, the head of the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division, had signed a petition that denied the existence of climate change. Formerly of Getty Oil and Marathon Oil, Field also serves as the state’s representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council, both industry fronts which maintain that fracking is benign. As this was coming to light, state officials anonymously leaked word of a plan to open five counties on New York’s border with Pennsylvania to fracking as long as communities there supported the technology.
In May 2012, Dewey Decker and his board passed a resolution pledging that the town of Sanford would take no action against fracking, while awaiting the decision of the DEC. There was no prior notice. Citizens were left to read about it in their local papers. “You wake up the next morning and say, ‘What happened?’” commented Doug Vitarious, a retired Sanford elementary school teacher.
In June, a headline in the Deposit Courier, a Sanford paper, read “Local Officials in Eligible Communities Approve Pro-Drilling Resolutions.” Accompanying the piece was a map of towns that had passed such resolutions. The subscript under the map read: “Joint Landowners Coalition of N.Y.” The JLCNY is the state’s grassroots gas industry ally, whose stated mission is to “foster… the common interest… as it pertains to natural gas development.” Decker represents the organization in Sanford.
During the summer, Vitarious and other citizens asked their town board where the resolution had originated, but were met with silence. They requested that the board rescind the resolution and conduct a referendum. Decker refused.
By the end of August, 43 towns in the region had passed resolutions modeled on one appearing at the JLCNY website. It stipulates that at the local level “no moratorium on hydraulic fracturing will be put in place before the state of New York has made it’s [sic] decision.” Under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the National Resources Defense Council obtained records from Sanford and two other towns about how they achieved their objectives. The records, says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, “detail contacts between gas industry operatives and officials.”
Two months before superstorm Sandy swamped parts of the state, Sue Rapp, a psychotherapist from the town of Vestal, told me that flooding worries her as much as anything else about fracking. Upper New York State suffered flooding in 2010 and 2011. And then came Sandy. Floods turn millions of gallons of fracking waste-water for which there is no safe storage into streams of poisons that wash into waterways.
Unlike Sanford’s board, Vestal’s has not formally blocked debate. It has heard arguments for a moratorium by Rapp and an organization she co-founded, Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VERSE), as well as pleas for a moratorium by physicians and academics. Its reaction, however, has simply been to sit on its hands, waiting for the DEC and Cuomo to make a final decision. This amounts to adopting the JLCNY position in all but formal vote. “What is happening?” asked Rapp rhetorically at a demonstration in Binghamton this past September. “They are trying to shut us down. But we do vote and we will vote. We do not constitute [what pro-drillers call] the tyranny of the majority, but simply the majority. That is called democracy.”
Demonstrations against Cuomo’s frack plan, which drew thousands to Washington D.C., Albany, and elsewhere in New York, included pledges to commit sustained acts of civil disobedience should the governor carry out plans to open the Pennsylvania border area of the state to fracking. At the end of September, the New York Times announced that Cuomo had retreated from his June stance. The report credited the state’s grassroots movement for his change of mind. Legendary for his toughness and political smarts, the governor will confront a political challenge in the coming months. Either he will please gas-industry supporters or his Democratic base. Whichever way he goes, it could affect his chances for the White House.
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