The Human Condition
By Martha E. Conway
(Town of Sullivan, NY- Aug. 2012) I am against a moratorium on natural gas activity.
I became involved in the issues surrounding natural gas through my work as a professional journalist in this community, and I was a staunch supporter of the creation of a task force to study the industry and its myriad impacts because I did not want to write about the injuries and deaths of people I know (see more at madisoncountycourier.com/?p=17403).
After all, I live here, and the things here – for better or worse – affect me, also.
A number of people have accused me of “humiliating John Becker into getting what [I] want” when he appointed the Madison County Natural Gas Development Working Group. The only thing I wanted was local municipalities to seize every opportunity they have – every right they have – to legally protect the town’s people and infrastructure. In an environment that requires three planning board meetings and a public hearing to put up a fence, it seemed ridiculous to do anything less.
I am not a property owner, but I live in Sullivan – an area not likely to be directly negatively affected by natural gas exploration or drilling activity, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.
I am in the strange position of working part-time in the Maintenance Department at the county while continuing my journalism work at the town level. I also volunteered to serve on the county’s natural gas research group two years ago. I am very conscious of the potential for – and perception of – areas where conflicts of interest may arise. I am quite able to be unbiased.
I have found local elected officials to be overwhelmingly respectful of the distinctions among these roles.
One of my biggest problems with the ongoing debate is that all parties are not having the same discussion because they are not defining their terms. The word “hydrofracking” is being used liberally to describe the entire gauntlet of natural gas activity without people knowing what hydraulic fracturing really is. Even fewer people distinguish between high- and low-volume hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing is not drilling. It also is not a new technology, dating back about 80 years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has exempted hydraulic fracturing from the federal Clean Air & Water Acts because the agency has not recorded a single event of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing. From drilling activity, yes; not from hydraulic fracturing.
It is critical that consistent language be used and municipal leaders know what they are hearing when a constituent states he or she is “against hydrofracking.” More frequently, the individual means they are against all natural gas activity.
I urge you to know which conversation you are having and ask constituents to define their terms. Are they solely against hydraulic fracturing? Or do they want to ban all natural gas-related activities?
Attitudes and Positions
Elected officials with a dearth of information are being put in the unenviable position of having to make judgment calls on this highly technical subject without the background to confidently do so. The issue of whether to encourage or prohibit natural gas exploration and extraction in New York state is the singular most polarizing issue I have witnessed since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973 when I was only 8 years old.
There appears to be absolutely no opportunity for neutrality on the issue, as if you are not 100-percent in agreement with either side, you are against them. Each side – not unlike politics or religion – seeks out sources of information that align with their already-held beliefs.
The “antis” are as careful with their word choices when addressing municipal officials and the public as they are with the experts they choose to quote. Water won’t be ‘contaminated;’ it will be POISONED. This language is purposefully chosen, designed to invoke a certain psychological reaction. Namely, fear/terror.
Several prominent antis who travel in the same circle keep attributing a gas well explosion in Brookfield to hydrofracking. Nothing could be further from the truth. A bit became stuck during drilling of a test well, and gas-drillers pumped air in behind it to try and dislodge it. According to Madison County Health Department officials, about half of the affected wells already were in questionable shape.
There absolutely are legitimate areas of concern where any drilling activity is concerned. Anywhere you have mechanical or human forces at work, there is potential for error or malfunction. We are talking about an industry that uses powerful equipment under incredible pressure to extract a material that is explosive and flammable.
The industry paints rosy pictures of their work. State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens has stated he believes that drilling can be done safely if under the proper oversight. Intense attention to detail must be undertaken in the oversight of all areas where cataclysmic events could occur.
The importance of that oversight component cannot be overstated because the gas industry – as any other corporate venture in our capitalist economy – is in it for profit, and the potential for temptation to cut corners cannot be ignored. Anyone who believes differently is a fool. Unfortunately for Madison County, our first experiences with the gas industry have not been good ones. In touring the so-called ravaged areas of Pennsylvania, I learned several very important things:
1. The quality of workmanship and attention to safety and detail varied from gas company to gas company. It became very clear very quickly who the good community stewards are and who they are not.
2. The economy is thriving. There was not a for sale sign on a piece of property anywhere in Bradford County or Dimock.
3. Those who related having the worst experiences with the worst companies said they would do it all again.
As elected officials – and appointees are victim of this, too – you are deemed not trustworthy. Anything you do that remotely looks like not giving the squeaky wheel what it wants will be interpreted as ‘pro-gas.’
I am dying to ask how these folks are heating their homes and water. One of my biggest quandaries with their numerous and frequent arguments is what alternatives they are offering, because I have not heard any. The windmill project in the town of Madison is one good, local example of a potential renewable energy project that has met with extreme resistance and which is now under moratorium.
Few are willing to use any analytical- or critical-thinking skills in weighing the available information, choosing instead to rely on those information sources that align with their already held beliefs. If you are going to watch “Gasland” or “Truthland,” you might as well watch both and deduce that the truth resides somewhere in the middle.
Due to time constraints and the risk of overwhelming you, I did not get into the issues of land agents and leases, seismic testing, road use agreements or compulsory integration. The greatest share of issues surrounding these facets of natural gas exploration and extraction are topics best suited to legal representation.
The county research team has been the target of rumor-mongering and borderline slander and libel regarding our work. We have been accused of being pro-gas (because if you’re not with them, you’re against them).
Even the name of the group has been dissected, saying that the use of the word “development” in its title made it a foregone conclusion that we were here to pave the way for the gas, when, in fact, it was simply intended that the group research and report on every possible facet of the exploration and extraction process, not just “hydrofracking.”
I am not in favor of a moratorium on the extraction of natural/mineral resources.
1. A moratorium is not necessary if the Sullivan Town Council plans to enact a ban on oil and gas exploration and extraction, and it is not necessary if the town plans to study it further. Either of these actions can be pursued without incurring further legal expenses in connection with creation, enactment, enforcement and potential defense of a local law on the subject. If zoning or banning it out of existence is your goal, what’s stopping you from doing so now?
2. Despite what the Chicken Littles would have you believe, the sky is NOT falling. Natural gas development – particularly in this part of the county – is NOT imminent. If Sullivan residents truly are concerned with “hydrofracking,” local experts in this county who are familiar with the geography tell us the shale formation is too shallow north of Route 20 for high-volume hydraulic fracturing to be permitted. Other types of drilling would be possible; however, the price of gas would have to skyrocket to make it worth it to gas companies to consider using less productive technology.
3. Many of the most vocal already have signed leases and blame their elected officials for not protecting them against exploitative agreements. They are angry because they feel local government should be able to get them out of the existing contract and into a better deal. Again, a matter for sound legal counsel.
4. I have long held the position that we in this county are lucky enough to have elected officials who – for the most part – entered public service for the right reasons. I presume this is why Mr. Becker appointed a research group to seek out reliable data on this subject, not because he was ‘humiliated into it.’ And I don’t want my own elected officials here at home feeling pressured, bullied or downright threatened into taking action on a subject in which they may not be fully versed.
How to Get Reliable, Local Source Information
Madison County Natural Gas Development Working Group Members
• Chairman Roger D. Bradstreet, Supervisor, Town of Nelson, email@example.com, (315) 655.8582
• Vice Chairman Daniel S. Degear , Supervisor, Town of DeRuyter, and Vice Chairman of the Madison County Board of Supervisors, firstname.lastname@example.org, (315) 852.9650
• Secretary Martha E. Conway, Vice President, M3P Media, LLC, and Publisher of the Madison County Courier, Martha@m3pmedia.com, (315) 813.0124
• Dr. Bruce Selleck, Interim Provost & Dean of the Faculty and Harold Orville Whitnall Professor of Geology, Colgate University, email@example.com, (315) 228.7222
• Supervisor Darrin P. Ball, Town of Lincoln, firstname.lastname@example.org, (315) 697.3812
• Scott Ingmire, Director, Madison County Planning Department, email@example.com, (315) 366.2376
• Geoffrey Snyder, Director, Madison County Public Health Department Environmental Division, Geoffrey.firstname.lastname@example.org, (315) 366.2526
• Darrell Griff, President, Madison County Farm Bureau, email@example.com, (315) 691.9635
• Dr. Christopher Nyberg, Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Morrisville State College, firstname.lastname@example.org, (315) 684.6083
• Steve Lorraine, Manager, Madison County Soil & Water Conservation District, email@example.com, (315) 824.9849
• Steve Keyes, General Manager, EmKey Resources, LLC, firstname.lastname@example.org, (814) 455-5350 ext. 239
Martha E. Conway is vice president of M3P Media, LLC, and publisher of the Madison County Courier. She can be reached at 315.813.0124 or by emailing email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/marthaeconway or Facebook at facebook.com/meconway.