Friday, September 26, 2014

Fracking debate full of hot air

Hydrofracking ranks among the most contentious issues in New York. For each person clamoring for the jobs and economic development it will bring to the state, there’s another who strongly opposes the method of natural gas extraction for its potential to damage the environment.

I can see the points on both sides.

I’m 100 percent confident that the economic benefit to the counties that border Pennsylvania will be absolutely astounding. They are among the poorest regions in our state and it would be good to see their residents finally do well.

Yet, I also see considerable risk in the consumption of vast reserves of fresh water and the disposal thereof after it has been tainted by chemicals. The Allegheny foothills and the waters that flow from them are unique, home to equally unique plants and animals. It would be horrible to see them forever altered as a consequence of Man’s actions. Our predecessors already did that with the Niagara River in the name of progress.

So, I see benefit in the moratorium on fracking (which would be improved dramatically if it had an end date, which it does not). The state Department of Environmental Conservation must be able to approach hydrofracking from a reasonable, thoughtful and well-informed perspective. If we grant the DEC some time to assess such development in other states, we can maximize our successes and minimize our failures.

That’s difficult, though, with all of the one-sided propaganda thrown its way.

Consider one of the most sensationalized talking points that dominate the conversation against hydrofracking (and ultimately does a great disservice to the meaningful aspects of the environmental movement): The belief that the process can set your drinking water on fire.

This goes back to the popular anti-fracking documentary Gasland. In a famous moment from it, Colorado property owner Mike Markham puts a lighter to his running tap and a huge fireball erupts. What the film did not say is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found that the methane in Markham’s drinking water was naturally occurring and not a result of fracking. The COGCC also notified Markham and others with similar complaints that they should be venting their private wells to prevent the entrapment of excess levels of gas in them. In short, Markham’s problems are the doing of Mother Nature and himself.

It should also be noted that flammable water can be found throughout the United States, even in areas far away from the typical hotbeds of past and future gas extraction. Case in point, my hometown. It’s called Gasport for a reason. The hamlet once known as Jamesport had its name changed in 1826, when an engineering team working on the Erie Canal found gas emanating from the ground and water.

Most of those sites have long since been built over, but one remains on our farm. The shore of a stream froths white, stinky methane-loaded compounds, and, most interestingly, the water itself bubbles non-stop from gas. There, I can repeat Markham’s experiment, although in a more natural setting (sans tap). If I place a match over the bubbles, the flame expands and puffs. If I lay a plastic bag over the water and allow the gas to build up within it and then light it, the bag “explodes.

Decades ago when hoboes traveled the land they set pipes in the water to create eternal flames for cooking. And, believe it or not, this is naturally-occurring. Hydrofracking has never happened here.

The moral of the story is that we, as good citizens – and the agencies that oversee our public welfare – should proceed intellectually, not emotionally, when it comes to hydrofracking. We must ignore the hype from both sides and proceed in a manner that best serves our people, economy and environment. We have but one chance to get it right.

From the 22 September 2014 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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