Hydrofracking, New York City, and Why You’re Going to the DEC Hearing Tomorrow Afternoon

November 29, 2011

"I want you to get mad!"

Patrick Robbins

On November 30, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will host a hearing on hydrofracking in New York State. Hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking,” is one of the most rapidly expanding forms of natural gas extraction in the United States and around the world (for more information on this process go here). So far, this method of extraction has spread to over 34 states, and more and more Americans are becoming aware of this practice and its effects on the environment. However, few New Yorkers are aware of how they fit into the national picture.

Here’s how it works. New York City consumes a lot of energy. Our demand for energy is strong enough to dictate policy for energy providers up and down the East Coast. Earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg famously donated $50 million to the National Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, and has indicated that he would like to see New York City move beyond coal-powered electricity. Environmentalists greeted this news with mixed emotions; on the one hand, coal is an extremely carbon intensive fossil fuel, and so moving beyond coal is a worthy goal for anyone concerned with the state of the climate. On the other hand, the city is ramping up investment in Natural Gas infrastructure, and if the demand gap left by coal is to be filled by natural gas, it could potentially send the level of hydrofracked gas into the stratosphere.

An increased demand for natural gas would almost certainly spur increased hydrofracking here in New York State. Both Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo would like you to believe that hydrofracking in New York State will not affect the quality of New York City’s water. However, scientists from the Department of Environmental Protection disagree – at a City Council hearing in October, DEP scientists testified that the buffer zone (the legal distance between a hydrofracking site and a watershed) that has been specified for hydrofracking in New York State is far too small to protect against contamination, and that the current legal framework for regulating this practice on a site-by-site basis is woefully inadequate.

New York City is unusual in that its water is unfiltered. It is nearly unheard of for a city as large and industrialized as New York City to drink unfiltered water. We have been blessed with an extremely high quality, naturally pure water supply, and if this water supply is contaminated, we have neither the infrastructure nor the resources to clean it. At one point during the city council hearing, Councilmember James Gennaro asked the scientists whether there was any amount of money, any amount of existing technology, that would be sufficient to undo the damage if upstate hydrofracking were to aversely affect the quality of our water. Under oath, the scientist responded “Absolutely not. That would not be a problem that any amount of money could solve.”

Finally, there’s a fundamental moral problem with the state’s position. The state’s policy toward hydrofracking rests on the logic that New York City dwellers will go along with a plan that protects them from harm, even if it diminishes the livelihood of their upstate neighbors. Of course, the facts contradict the DEC’s assertion that New York City will be safe—if hydrofracking proceeds in upstate New York, it is unlikely that current legal regulations will be sufficient to protect New York City’s drinking water. But suppose that the DEC were right. Suppose New York City could be protected. How insulting, to think that we would allow our neighbors to be poisoned, to have their land degraded, their healthcare costs increased and their businesses damaged, all so that we may continue our energy habits. For New Yorkers to be silent on this issue is to affirm an ugly and cynical vision of our character. It is our absolute duty to stand in solidarity with our neighbors—as the consumers who will supposedly benefit from upstate hydrofracking, our voice rings particularly loudly on this issue, and it sends a powerful message when we New Yorkers voice our objections to this plan. Ultimately, mobilization in New York City may be enough to determine the course of the energy industry in this state for years to come.

That’s why it is so important for New York city residents to turn out to the hearing at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center this Wednesday. The hearing is at 199 Chambers Street, and will be going on all afternoon from 12:00 to 9:00 (for a complete schedule and more details go here). As a great New Yorker once said, “if you don’t know, now you know.” I’ll see you there.

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