Sunday, April 01, 2012
Wilma Subra: State Lawmakers Let Shale Gas Industry Call the Shots on Fracking
By Press Action
All signs are pointing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo giving the natural gas industry a green light by this summer to proceed with the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas in New York. After the Cuomo administration gives the industry a thumbs-up, lawsuits from citizen and environmental groups may delay when the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews the first drilling permit application. But most observers believe Cuomo and the rest of the political elite in New York have no intention of banning high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state.
A large-scale movement against shale gas drilling has emerged in New York over the last few years. But it’s hard to gauge whether members of this movement are sufficiently committed to the cause to throw a monkey wrench into the industry’s plans. Along with filing lawsuits and phoning their state legislators, will anti-fracking activists in New York, given their large numbers, use civil disobedience and blockades to impede the industry’s activities? Civil disobedience and blockades are effective tactics against the activities of powerful interests. Take a look at how union members and activists were able to shut down operations at oil refineries in France for a couple weeks in October 2010.
Because the natural gas industry holds immense power and influence, there was never a doubt the political elite in New York would give the industry permission to use hydraulic fracturing. The only uncertainty was the timing of the approval.
While the state’s final rules may be tougher than in other states, few knowledgeable observers expect that New York’s new regulatory framework for fracking will be overly burdensome on the industry. “I think they’re going to implement some additional regulations, but it’s only going to be what the industry allows them,” chemist and environmental consultant Wilma Subra told Press Action. “The industry is very, very powerful in all of these states. The industry has such political influence at the state capitals and in the legislative process.”
In other words, shale gas drilling will soon dominate the landscape in the Marcellus Shale region of New York, similar to what is occurring in the hardest-hit counties of Pennsylvania … unless anti-fracking activists decide not to let the gas companies run roughshod over the state’s water, air and land.
The industry claims they have perfected the technology and that there’s no reason to worry about any risks from hydraulic fracturing. Officials routinely argue that hydraulic fracturing is a technology with a long history, going back 60 years. But the technology used 60 years ago is completely different than what the industry is trying to get its hands around today. The vast differences in technology are why Charif Souki, chairman and CEO of Cheniere Energy Inc., an LNG import company, recently explained that the shale gas industry is still “very early in the learning curve” of understanding the potential harm and benefits of hydraulic fracturing.
Subra, who received the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award from the MacArthur Foundation for helping ordinary citizens understand, cope with and combat environmental issues in their communities, agrees with Souki. “There are a number of issues. There’s the technology, which is still being developed,” she said. “There are a lot of gaps in the technology that could cause problems.”
Subra has been studying the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas industry activities since the 1970s. In 1981, Subra founded Subra Company, a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm in New Iberia, La. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Subra worked with local residents along the Gulf Coast to study the health and environmental effects of the disaster.
“Subra’s phone began ringing the morning after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, with calls from friends and neighbors who had men on the rig,” The Guardian newspaper reported in June 2010. “More calls came in when the southerly winds coming off the Gulf brought headaches, nausea and breathing difficulties to people on the coast. These days, the phone rings constantly.”
As for hydraulic fracturing, regulatory oversight in the Barnett Shale of Texas, the birthplace of the shale gas revolution, has been ineffectual to nonexistent. As a result, people became living laboratories in this unprecedented mineral play, Subra told the Dallas Observer.
“We’re seeing surface water contamination from leaks and spills of produced water. We’re seeing deeper groundwater contamination from the failure of cement and casing. We’re seeing air emissions from produced fluids, compressor stations, and along pipelines,” Subra told the Dallas Observer. Exposure begins with respiratory problems, skin rashes, neurological impairments and finally cardiovascular issues.
A number of cities and counties in Texas, as well as New York and Pennsylvania, have passed ordinances either imposing stricter regulations on shale gas drillers or banning the practice outright. In Texas, a gas company will apply for a permit to drill a well in a jurisdiction and also seek several exemptions from the rules. “If the local governing authority denies the exemptions, then the gas company comes in and says, ‘we’re going to sue you for denying these exemptions,’” Subra explained to Press Action. “But the local government doesn’t have the financial resources to be able to fight the legal challenges, so then they start backing down.”
The natural gas industry typically follows two approaches when confronted by local government authorities seeking to protect the health of their residents and the health of the environment, Subra said. The industry works with state legislators to strip rights from communities and individuals to impose restrictions or bans on gas drilling, very similar to what happened in Pennsylvania with the passage of a draconian new law, called Act 13. Or the gas companies threaten to file big lawsuits that consume the budgets of towns and counties, she said.
Despite getting slapped with lawsuits by gas companies, two towns in New York—Dryden and Middlefield—won a legal battle when a state court upheld local zoning laws passed by the towns to prohibit oil and natural gas exploration within their borders. These court rulings may eventually get overturned on appeal. But at least some municipalities are refusing to surrender to the gas companies without a fight.
According to New Yorkers Against Fracking, a new coalition of environmental and citizen groups formed last week, 82 towns and six counties have enacted bans or moratoria in New York State. Seventy-one municipalities are also considering or staging a ban or moratorium. In the past few weeks, Buffalo, the second largest city in New York, and Niagara Falls both passed resolutions calling for Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a statewide ban on fracking.
As the battle over fracking continues in New York, communities in other states are already facing the negative consequences of shale gas drilling. “Shale gas took off so rapidly that the state regulatory process has not been able to keep up and is influenced so heavily by the industry itself,” Subra said. “The states don’t have sufficient regulation on the books to ensure that the shale gas development process is protective of human health and the environment. They’re having huge impacts on the quality of life for people living in those areas.”Share