Natural Gas: The Signs They Are A-Changin' In New York
© Sierra Club, Jessica Riehl
In Broome County, New York, according to local Sierra Club activist Chris Burger, it's the Battle of the Signs. "Everyone's got either a 'Friends of Natural Gas' sign or a 'No Fracking' sign on their lawn," he says. "And the industry hasn't even gotten to our area yet."
While Pennsylvania has long been ground zero of the explosion in drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing, the current front of the battle to keep drillers at bay is across the state line in New York, where people are banding together to protect their drinking water.
New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has collected 40,000 public comments on proposed fracking, with opinions running 10-to-1 against drilling. Last week, hundreds of residents demonstrated at the state capital in Albany to demand tougher regulations (that's the photo above).
Fracking uses high-pressure injection of water, sand, and unknown chemicals to free natural gas from shale deposits. Drillers exploit legislative loopholes, lobby elected officials with campaign contributions, and target private property owners with lucrative lease agreements. At risk, though, is something no one can afford to lose -- clean water.
"We're blessed here," says Chris Burger. "You can build a home, drill down 100 feet or so, and get plenty of water to live on. But private wells are very vulnerable to contamination by drilling. Once they're contaminated, you're out of luck, and your house becomes worthless."
The DEC has said that New Yorkers can expect tougher drilling safeguards later this year. Towns and cities are looking for ways to stop drilling. Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter member Kate Bartholomew, who lives in Schuyler County near the Finger Lakes, says they’re watching it all very closely.
Kate and Chris say that the issue boils down to educating the public. Struggling small farmers are tempted by the quick money to be made from leasing their land to gas companies. But once they learn about the risks of fracking, they often reconsider.
"The longer this debate goes on and the more we all learn of the realities -- like the fact that people in Pennsylvania have not actually made much money from their leases -- the more the playing field levels," says Kate. "Neighbors begin talking to one another."
And that's when the lawn signs start to change.
"In the next county over, most of the signs used to say Friends of Natural Gas," says Kate. "Now, they say Friends of Clean Water. Once the community started a dialogue and a coalition, they were able to work out what was really important to them -- their water."