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Hundreds of clinched fists were raised Wednesday afternoon at Albany’s Empire Convention Center. Behind a security checkpoint defended by state troopers in rigid-brimmed campaign hats, New York governor Andrew Cuomo delivered the annual State of the State address to a room packed with clapping hands. In the longest such speech in the state’s history, Cuomo covered everything from an initiative to increase gambling revenue to promoting tourism. He even found room on the podium to lay out plans for an Adirondack Whitewater Challenge that would include a “Politician Division” in which government officials and their staff from would race each other on rafts. The segment of Cuomo’s address that has received the most media attention was his impassioned plea for tighter gun control. But one smoking gun escaped his mention: high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
A moratorium on the controversial shale gas drilling method is set to expire at the end of February, so activists on both sides of the debate came to Albany to make their voices heard. While there was a small cluster in favor of drilling, the vast majority of the more than 1,500 people in attendance were there to tell lawmakers not to let fracking poison their air, water and soil. Many had traveled from across the state, including legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who led the crowd in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” Later, with fists in the air, they took a pledge — mic-checked by biologist Sandra Steingraber — to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience before the gas industry is able to make good on the thousands of New York land leases it currently sits on.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has looked into ways fracking could be conducted with minimal harm, but Steingraber says some things — cigarettes, lead paint and asbestos — are unsafe no matter how you regulate them. “Fracking fits into that category of things that are just inherently bad,” she explained. “When you blow up the bedrock and inject it with toxic chemicals, you cannot control or fix what happens.” Even if water isn’t immediately contaminated, fracking could lead to future contamination once the cement that is used to seal wells gives way. “Cement is not immortal,” Steingraber continued. “It cracks. And when it cracks, it opens up portals of possible contamination between all the bad stuff in the shale and the water that we depend on for life.”
The DEC doesn’t see it that way. It is expected to file rules to regulate the massive quantities of water, silica sand and dangerous cancer-causing chemicals that will be injected into the state’s Marcellus Shale formation, while ignoring the toxins that will be filling the air. This process, not surprisingly, has been shrouded in secrecy, but dubious dealings with the gas industry have come to light. Emails obtained by the Environmental Working Group in July through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that DEC Deputy Commissioner Steven Russo had shared details of potential fracking regulations with a lobbyist representing gas drillers. The New York Times also revealed that one of the contractors hired to review the DEC’s analysis of fracking has ties to oil and gas companies. In a letter to the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York last week, DEC chief Joseph Martens sought to assuage fears among the pro-fracking lobby that Cuomo would keep the moratorium in place. Martens said that the governor — who received $150,000 of the roughly $200,000 in campaign contributions that energy firms made in the last gubernatorial election — had personally asked him to reach out to the group.
“We’ve just hit walls with a lot of our municipal governments,” said Isaac Silberman-Gorn, an activist with the anti-fracking group Shale Shock in New York’s Southern Tier, a region very much on the gas industry’s radar. “The reason being: They’re bought and paid for. When your elected officials are taking a huge percentage of their campaign funds from gas interests, it’s really tough.”
According to Silberman-Gorn, the vast majority of people in the Southern Tier are opposed to drilling, and the gas industry has used intimidation tactics to silence that opposition. One firm, Energy In Depth (EID), the PR wing of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has launched smear campaigns aimed at individuals raising their voices against fracking. Several of Siberman-Gorn’s colleagues have been targeted by EID. “It took me a while to really appreciate that we are a front-line community,” he said. “If you stand up, they will work hard to slap you down.”
While energy corporations seeking to usurp land and resources have much at their disposal, sometimes nature itself, unwitting lends a helping hand. Catherine Yeager lost her home and all her possessions in Far Rockaway, Queens when Superstorm Sandy came to town in October. Since then she’s slept on a series of floors and couches. Not long after the storm, Yeager was volunteering at a former vegetarian restaurant she helped convert into a relief hub when she learned that a mega-gas pipeline was headed for the Rockaways. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the New York City Natural Gas Supply Enhancement Act, which will expand the city’s use of natural gas sourced through fracking.
“I’m deep in the process of trying to rebuild, trying to bring relief to the Rockaways,” said Yeager. “It upset me very much that in the wake of this disaster the government would begin to try to sneak through this bill which is going to be its own hurricane by destroying our water.”
Climate scientists have described Sandy as a “Frankenstorm” brought on by both natural and anthropogenic causes. More extreme weather patterns can be expected in the future due to the effect of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in Earth’s atmosphere. In the first peer-reviewed study of methane emissions from shale gas extraction, researchers at Cornell University found that fracking has a carbon footprint greater than coal or oil. “Climate change,” Yeager says, “is going to bring even more hurricanes,” which in turn will put the seaside population at risk for future pipeline contamination. “It’s going to make it even more likely that pipelines will burst. People are not going to be able to take their children and go down to the beach. They’re not going to be able to swim in the ocean.”
As the deadline on the fracking moratorium nears its expiration, environmental groups have hinted that they have already drawn up lawsuits and will contest approval. The legal challenges could tie up any potential drilling plans for as long as two years. Beyond the courtroom, though, several thousand activists are planning to form another line of defense and make good on their oaths of direct action.
At the State of the State, while Governor Cuomo jokingly laid out ground rules for the rafting race he plans to take with fellow Albany politicos, Reverend Billy Talen led protesters in a “power prayer” that took aim at Cuomo.
“We will do what Americans have done in our history to create change,” Talen said. “We are willing to go to jail. We are willing to fly through your windows. We are the Earth.”
Peter Rugh is an activist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.