New York’s Gov. Cuomo needs to learn that you can’t frack your way out of the economic crisis

Your heart has to go out to the dairy farmers of upstate New York. They work long hours to bring staples of the American diet to your table every morning — and yet it’s just getting harder and harder for dairy farmers to make ends meet. While Wall Street may be booming, just a few hours to its northwest the economy remains in a shambles. Many residents of upstate New York’s Southern Tier worry that they’ll be forced to sell farms that have been in their family for generations.

But New York’s popular Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, thinks there’s a way out for some of his struggling citizens: Drilling deep for natural gas underneath their picturesque rolling hillsides.

As the wave of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from shale beds pushes its way north — after already sowing controversy and causing environmental harm in neighboring Pennsylvania —  a coalition of activists has fought hard to stop the same thing from happening in New York. The administration of Cuomo, who took office last year, has sent mixed signals on whether he might join Vermont as the second state in the Northeast to outlaw fracking. Instead, his aides leaked word this week to the New York Times that the Cuomo administration is likely to push a plan that would — with limits — permit fracking in the Empire State. And he is using the economic benefits to hard-hit landowners as his excuse.

The plan, described by a senior official at the State Department of Environmental Conservation and others with knowledge of the administration’s strategy, would limit drilling to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale rock formation in an effort to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.

Even within that southwest New York region — primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties — drilling would be permitted only in towns that agree to it and would be banned in Catskill Park, aquifers and nationally designated historic districts.

The trade-off?

“A lot of people look at this as a way to save our property,” said Dewey Decker, a farmer, a member of a coalition of landowners supporting fracking and the town supervisor of Sanford, in Broome County, at the Pennsylvania border. Residents of the town, including Mr. Decker, have already leased thousands of acres to a drilling company.

Mr. Decker said that the area’s traditional dairy business had been in sharp decline, and that the promise of fracking had already helped some residents. He said there were “a lot of people who, when we signed and got the upfront money, were going to be losing their land and couldn’t pay their taxes.”

It’s almost funny, in a way. It seems that every week we see alternating stories, sometimes on the front page of the same newspaper like the New York Times, hailing the “Gold Rush”-style wealth opportunities from fracking, or chronicling the serious risks to a fragile ecology. Before they rush into anything, Gov. Cuomo and fracking supporters like Dewey Decker need to read up on what has happened in other parts of the country, where many landowners wish they’d never taken the money. I hope that before fracking is allowed in New York — even on a limited basis — that folks there will look at the “boom” in North Dakota.

A recent investigative piece in ProPublica looked at the situation in North Dakota, where advances in fracking technology has allowed drillers to tap into shale oil that was long considered inaccessible. Remarkably, this prairie state has surged to second in the nation in oil production behind Texas, and certainly a lot of jobs have come with that. But despite a lower jobless rate than much of the country, many locals in North Dakota are starting to ask if it’s worth it.

Here’s why:

The downside is waste — lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn’t making it that far.

According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.

State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.

That’s what I’ve learned about Big Oil and Big Gas in more than twenty years of taking them on in a courtroom — that you just can’t trust them to keep their promises. Officials from Pennsylvania to North Dakota have given the green light for fracking with assurances that dangers will be minimized or eliminated and rules will strictly be enforced, But in the real world, that rarely happens — and this is the same trap I sadly see New York State falling into.

These desperate homeowners have become convinced that fracking is the only way to save their beloved farmland, and that is a shame. Because fracking might well destroy it.

To read more about Gov. Cuomo’s plan to partially allow fracking in New York State, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/14/nyregion/hydrofracking-under-cuomo-plan-would-be-restricted-to-a-few-counties.html

Here is the recent ProPublica report on fracking waste disposal problems in North Dakota: http://openchannel.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/06/08/12106895-oil-boom-brings-wealth-and-waste-to-north-dakota#.T9Jy4O7G3fo.email

This is my recent blog post on the rush to lease property to the Big Gas companies in rural Ohio: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/fracking-for-dollars-articles-about-big-paydays-for-mineral-rights-overlook-environmental-nightmares-down-the-road

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