Wilson: Time for some frack checking
GalleriesFracking across the United States
Earlier this month, a trial balloon was floated showing movement by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration toward a long-awaited decision on horizontal hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as hydrofracking or fracking. The leak proposed a demonstration fracking project involving parts of five counties along the Pennsylvania border in New York's Southern Tier. Meanwhile New York State is continuing to focus on the area where the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation lies at least 2,000 feet underground as potential ground for the contentious gas-extraction process.
The 2,000-foot depth is an arbitrary compromise that roughly divides New York's Marcellus Shale region in half. Some suggest that fracking at 2,000 feet will not put New York's water supplies at risk -- despite evidence to the contrary from Pennsylvania, where the shale lies over 5,000 feet deep.
The governor's reluctance to ban fracking altogether is a victory for the oil and gas industries. If the proposal becomes policy, the battle would shift from the single stage in Albany -- where fracking opponents had their best chance to capture statewide headlines, public sentiment and political support -- to countless town halls and courthouses, where the advantage goes to the wealthy and patient drilling industry. According to a report released by the nonpartisan government-accountability group Common Cause New York earlier this year, pro-fracking interest groups have already begun pouring money into local political races.
For residents of New York State, the proposed boundary finally offers a picture of how many people and how much area could be affected by drilling pad sites, trucking routes and chemical holding ponds.
While the leaked proposal identifies just five primary counties, an overlay of maps from the supplemental generic environmental impact statement available at the Department of Environmental Conservation's website and maps from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that the 2,000-foot zone contains all or part of 266 municipalities from 21 of New York's 62 counties. The total land area in the zone is 11,676 square miles -- 24.6 percent of the entire state. The area is larger than nine other states, including New York's neighbors Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.
According to the 2010 census, the combined population of the 266 communities in the zone is 1,013,118. If it were its own state, New York's frackable zone would top the populations of Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia.
The comparison to Vermont doesn't end at size and population. New York's Southern Tier has a similar rural agricultural profile, with iconic rolling green landscape, small farms and pastures. While the region lacks Vermont's upscale cultural identity -- and recognizable mascots on the order of Ben & Jerry -- the Southern Tier is home to the likes of Chobani Yogurt and Ommegang Brewery. Politicians in Montpelier, recognizing an opportunity to flaunt their state's green credentials, passed a law last month establishing Vermont as the first state to ban hydrofracking -- a savvy move even if purely symbolic, since there are no exploitable gas-bearing shale deposits in the state.
Perhaps a more meaningful geographical comparison for New York residents is between the lands that may ultimately open to hydrofracking and the 9,375-square-mile Adirondack Park. In 1892, the State Legislature created the park, drawn on state maps as a jagged blue oval, in response to vast ecological devastation left by private industry.
The energy sector, in the form of charcoal processors, was in the vanguard of the plunder of New York's high forests and headwaters. The charcoal in turn fueled waves of extractive industries that followed.
Albany's creation of the "forever wild" protection status of the patchwork of state lands within the "Blue Line" fostered an ecological recovery of mountains, lakes and river systems. Current DEC Commissioner Joe Martens has devoted much of his career to the further preservation of ecologically important lands within the park, which sees 7 million to 10 million tourists annually -- among them, the governor and his family.
New York has many valuable and imperiled resources beyond cheap energy. Two such vulnerable assets are the independent family farm and the communities that once grew up around them. In our state, many of those farms and communities lie within the zone the governor has redlined for fracking. While welcoming the natural gas industry into New York may satisfy some short-term political and economic goals, a more sustainable long-term rescue for the Southern Tier should be considered.
Cuomo has an opportunity to break the cycle of industrial exploitation and ecological and cultural devastation by creating a farm community preservation zone throughout the Southern Tier. Banning hydrofracking is the place to start.
Mark Wilson, an editorial cartoonist and illustrator who draws under the name Marquil, lives in the northern reaches of New York's Adirondack Park.