‘Fracking’ debate hits home for NY, PA communities

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The oil and natural gas boom brought about by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has reignited a national debate over developing the country’s vast energy reserves.

Fracking has become a hot-button political issue across the country, particularly in New York, where the practice faces a four-year ban.

New York’s Southern Tier — the counties along the border with Pennsylvania — sits on top of the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, but the state’s moratorium on fracking prevents people from accessing it. However, just across the border in Pennsylvania, many credit fracking with revitalizing local economies.

“The Pennsylvania-New York border is the ‘Berlin Wall,’” Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Pennsylvania is West Berlin, and New York is East Berlin.”

“What’s happening in New York is just a continued decline in the economy of the Southern Tier. Those are the counties right along the border with Pennsylvania,” said Moreau. “Literally, people can stand there on the New York side and look just across the political border and see all this prosperity.”

Fracking involves injecting fluids into cracks in rock formations to widen them and allow more oil and gas to escape, increasing the amounts that can be recovered. Environmentalists worry that fracking is detrimental to the public health, and claim companies will not release important information about fluid content.

Critics of the practice are particularly concerned about radioactive waste water, contaminated drinking water, and radon exposure. Supporters argue it is safe, and point to economic benefits.

Natural gas production in Pennsylvania more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, in part because of fracking and horizontal drilling.There are about 240,000 people directly or indirectly employed by the oil and gas industry in the Keystone State, according to a state official.

“We’ve seen lower unemployment rates in the regions that have higher drilling activities,” Patrick Henderson, energy executive for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, told The DCNF, adding that tax revenues have grown and energy costs have fallen dramatically.

Seventy-four percent of new employees in the oil and gas industry are from Pennsylvania, said Henderson, adding that there are also “people crossing the border of both western Pennsylvania and the Northern Tier” to work for oil and gas companies.

“There are New York workers going into Pennsylvania,” said Moreau, “to work on Pennsylvania gas drilling crews.”

The Keystone State has also seen tax revenues explode, raking in about $1.7 billion directly from the oil and gas industry since 2006, according to Henderson. Furthermore, impact fees, which are levied on each well, have driven millions of dollars back to local governments. $204 million was raised in the first round of collections in September 2012.

“We have what’s anticipated to be what’s perhaps the second largest shale gas deposit in the world potentially in Broome County, New York,” said Moreau. She added that Broome County alone has lost out on $24 million in tax payments because of New York’s moratorium.

A 2011 study by the conservative Manhattan Institute found that ending the moratorium on fracking would spur more than  $11.4 billion economic growth, along with up to 18,000 jobs created in the Southern Tier and Western New York. According to the study, these regions lost 48,000 payroll jobs between 2000 and 2010.

“We missed a golden opportunity, I believe to reshape Southern New York, upstate New York,” Tom Santulli, the executive of Chemung County, told Fox News. “We need fuel and lots of it, and we’ve got the cleanest fossil fuel that there is sitting right here. We should use it, put it to work, and renovate these communities.”

Elmira, New York, located in the county, has an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

“The impact of stalling New York development is hitting hardest on poor rural landowners,” said Moreau. “It’s an area where agriculture has declined significantly because it’s just too expensive to farm.”

Environmentalists have been putting pressure on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking, raising concerns about groundwater contamination.

“What you have are anti-fossil fuel activists who have now come in from all across the country and identified New York as ground zero for the movement,” Moreau told The DCNF.

“You have a number of has-been celebrities that have been resurrected, said Moreau. “They’re like ‘The Walking Dead.’”

Celebrities like Yoko Ono — ex-Beatle John Lennon’s widow — have come out against fracking. Ono and her son Sean Lennon started the group Artists Against Fracking that includes Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman.

“Fracking kills,” Ono said last month in Albany. “So it’s such a pity that we’re going to do that, we’re going to commit suicide altogether.”

“There is an urban wealth and elitism that has crept out into the rural areas, and has transformed rural America to deny the people who own the land historically of their rights to use their resources,” Moreau said.

The Cuomo administration also recently delayed finalizing regulations on fracking, and the moratorium could extend into 2014. However, the New York Times reported that a leaked study done early last year by New York’s Health Department said that fracking could be done safely within the state.

“Fracking is not new. We have a number of wells that were vertically fractured already in western New York,” said Moreau. “Over 14,000 active gas wells in New York right now, not a single incident of groundwater contamination.”

Water contamination fears were stoked when the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland” featured the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania where residents said fracking had contaminated their drinking water. However, the EPA found that the water was safe to drink last July.

“In the community of Dimock, Pennsylvania,” said Kate Sinding, an attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, “an aquifer was contaminated by bad drilling and fracking practices by a gas company — in addition to which there were a huge number of spills.”

“The record is pretty clear simply because where [fracking] is occurring — a mile below the aquifer,” said Henderson, adding that fracking is only one part of the drilling process. “What we have said” is “can drilling impact groundwater, and the answer is yes. If you don’t do it right.”

“State governments have always regulated hydraulic fracturing and drilling. We’re in the best position to do so, we have unique geology, we have boots on the ground,” he added. Yet many environmentalists counter that the regulations on fracking are insufficient.

“There is no other solution for the economy of upstate New York, except natural gas development,” Moreau concluded. “And if this does not happen, you are going to see a continued decline of upstate New York’s economy.”

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