A (very) Brief History of the New York Frack Ban Movement

By Chip Northrup, No Fracking Way

Or, What the Frack Really Happened ?

An Overly Simplistic Explanation of Why New York Did Not Get Fracked

We can summarize why fracking was prohibited in New York with a simple construct  – the cost/ benefit ratio – what the environmental risks and economic costs would be to the state and it citizens vs the benefits of shale gas industrialization. Initially, this ratio appeared to be tilted very much in favor of  fracking  – at least in the popular press and in the corridors of power – because the gas industry had grossly overstated the benefits of shale gas development while categorically denying the risks and collateral damage associated with fracking.

Note too that the political cost / benefit for the Governor was almost always in favor of fracking – given his purported political ambitions. Meaning it is entirely possible that he prohibited fracking to the possible detriment of his own ambitions. This is of course, exactly the kind of politician that deserves to be in office, the courageous ones.

Since at the outset of the debate, there were few peer-reviewed studies on the hazards, the benefit of the doubt on the risks went to the frackers. The media was dependent on the industry regarding the geology, so the industry exaggerated and said the shale would support tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue annually.

At the height of the Shale Mania, few people knew the productive extent of the Marcellus or Utica shales in New York with any certainty. After an SEC rule change in 2008 that liberalized how proven undeveloped reserves could be reported, the oil and gas companies had a financial inventive to overstate the likely amount of shale gas reserves. And they did, in some cases, wildly, overstating both the productive extent of the shale, the amount of recoverable gas, and the economic impact that might have for the state. Ironically, this rule change enabled shale gas financings to take off – at the same time that the mortgage market was melting down due to uncontrolled financial chicanery. Shale was to replace real estate as the next bubble.

Since there were few studies on the health or environmental impacts of fracking, the industry had carte blanche do deny that there were any problems. And, under the advice of PR firms used by the tobacco industry, the shale gas companies denied all health risks.

With the promise of a potential  fracking bonanza and the absence of definitive health studies, the scales were tilted decidedly in the frackers’ favor.

Unlike other states where fracking was introduced, there were very few oil and gas industry experts that knew enough about the process to not only be skeptical, but bold enough to speak out. The two standouts were Dr. Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell, a former consultant to Schlumberger, and Lou Allstadt of Cooperstown, a recently retired VP at Mobil Oil. Through their persistence in addressing both the technical risks (Ingraffea) and the economic prospects (Allstadt) they were pivotal in tipping the cost/ratio scales against fracking.  

Add to that a growing body of scientific studies against fracking and an outpouring of popular resistance, and the Governor’s decision seemed inevitable after the fact.

The Stage Was Set for New York to Get Fracked

Armed with propaganda manufactured by the gas industry and its paid frackademics – the frackers got the upper hand in Albany. Their lobbyists first re-wrote the state’s compulsory integration law, essentially privatizing the power of condemnation for the frackers in 2005, which was adopted on a unanimous vote of both houses. The same gas lobbyists subsequently co-wrote proposed changes to the state’s SGEIS to make the regulations as “frack friendly” as possible.

When it looked like New York was on a fast track to get fracked, oil and gas companies started leasing land and drilling test wells. This was at a time when gas was spiking at $10 mcf, so the speculative frenzy to tie up land was high. Since the frackers had succeeded in literally buying the Pennsylvania governor and legislature, and since the new compulsory integration law had sailed through the New York legislature, they had every reason to believe that New York would be an extension of Pennsylvania politically. That was their first big miscalculation – they assumed that New York was going to be a walkover. 

Gasland’s Flaming Faucets  

At about the same time that wildcat shale test wells were being drilled in New York by Anschutz, Gastem and Norse, problems were beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania. Unlike other shale gas fields, notably the Barnett in N. Central Texas and the Fayetteville in Arkansas, the NE Marcellus in Pennsylvania and New York is particularly vulnerable to methane migration from the well bores. In plain English, horizontal shale gas wells in this sort of terrain are apt to vent gas into groundwater. To compound the problem, the water wells in the area are tapping groundwater, the same shallow resources that are most vulnerable to gas leakage and surface spills. This in contrast to Western wells, which “mine” water from aquifers that have no contact with the surface (other than the water well).  These two factors – leaking gas and shallow water wells – results in the phenomena of “flaming faucets” – potable water so saturated with methane that it can be ignited when the tap is turned on.  Scenes of flaming faucets and polluted streams were the show stoppers of Josh Fox’s Academy Award nominated documentary, Gasland. The cause of the phenomena was explained by Dr. Ingraffea, citing then-obscure peer reviewed studies and industry brochures that addressed ways to attempt to prevent such “methane migration.”  This was the first really high profile challenge to the industry’s Big Lie of harmless fracking.

Interviews with John Fenton in Wyoming and Calvin Tillman in Texas left no doubt in viewers minds what leaving in a gas field was like. Distribution through HBO brought the issue to national prominence.

Read more on No Fracking Way

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