9:14am

Sat December 24, 2011
2011's most important stories

Top 10: The fracking wait

This was not the year of hydrofracking.

The controversial method for extracting natural gas from deep shale deposits, by blasting chemicals and water into rock formations and shaking loose gas, is not currently allowed in New York. 

But this was the year of controversy about hydrofracking, ensured by a moratorium that pitted drillers against environmentalists, and people who want to lease their land for a windfall, against people who want to invest in renewables, or preserve the integrity of their rural lifestyle.

So the year of hydrofracking is yet to come – it could be next year, or the year after.  It all depends on how the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) moves forward with drilling regulations.

Fracking is by far the issue that we get the most mail about. Our listeners and readers fall on both sides of the issue, and others still are unsure how they should feel about the matter.

As a journalistic organization, the Innovation Trail has no position on fracking. Our role is to seek the truth on behalf of our constituency: the people of upstate New York. But we did cover fracking from a variety of angles, and found several themes cropping up again and again.

Municipal bans

Big cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, and Binghamton all enacted bans on fracking within their limits this year – but it’s two small towns, Dryden and Middlefield – that are fighting for the right to do that on behalf of their larger peers.

Lawsuits were filed to challenge Dryden and Middlefield’s bans this year; in Dryden, the ban became fodder for a hotly contested election. The argument from those bringing the suits: regulating drilling is the sole purview of the DEC – drillers can’t be expected to comply with a patchwork of local regulations. 

The rebuttal: not allowing towns to ban fracking violates the principal of “home rule,” a deeply entrenched part of New York law. Towns have the right to say what does and doesn’t happen within their borders.

This debate will play out over a period of years – not months – and the cost could be heavy for the small towns fighting it out in court. But to citizens like Dryden supervisor Mary Ann Sumner, it’s worth it:

"Somewhere in this process we realized ... that the gas industry was a heavy industrial use that is simply incompatible with our lifestyle," she says

Hearings

This was also the year that the DEC finally released the revised draft of its supplemental generic impact statement, or SGEIS, triggering a round of public hearings.  Those hearings highlighted the tension between those who want to bring New York’s natural gas reserves to the surface now – and those who want to wait until there’s been more time to study those issue (or who want drilling banned forever).  At times the gulf between those two sides seemed unbridgeable, as Matt Richmond and Marie Cusick reported from a DEC hearing in Binghamton in November:

The scene outside the forum, before the hearings started, looked a lot like the fracking debate across New York.

At either end of the block, the pro- and anti-fracking demonstrators held signs and led the occasional chant. In the middle was what one police officer called the "neutral zone." It was empty.

And then there were the alternate hearings, not sponsored by the state.  Both sides of the issue hosted events throughout the year.  In December, in Ithaca, the Tompkins County Council of Governments held a hearing and took comments – largely anti-drilling – for the official record on the SGEIS.  Leading up to November’s official hearings, the Independent Oil and Gas Association held hearings to try to show that the gas industry is listening to public concerns.

Conflicted science

Some of the skepticism around fracking stems from what we don’t know.

We don’t know how much gas there is in the Marcellus Shale.  This year it was revealed that the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy, two federal agencies, have different estimates of how much gas is in the formation.  That’s important because drillers use those estimates to calculate the value proposition of drilling.

We don’t know whether natural gas is a good or bad solution to help us get to a renewable energy future. Scientists from the same university (Cornell), writing in the same journal (Climatic Change), have come to two very different conclusions about how much methane is released during the drilling process, and how bad it is (or isn’t) for the atmosphere.

The personal is political

This was a year that the issue of fracking started to hit home for many people. 

For local politicians, it was a year of deciding where they stood. In Cortland, a county clerk began a campaign to stand up against what she sess as drillers abusing her office in order to enforce lease that aren’t valid.  In Tompkins County, legislators have sacrificed time from their personal lives in order to prepare for the possibility of fracking – even though towns like Ithaca and Dryden have banned the practice.  For former DEC commissioner Pete Grannis, who leaked a memo detailing how state job cuts were leaving the agency unprepared to handle fracking, it was his last year on the job.

For some living on the front lines, 2011 was a year of landmen coming knocking, and the threat of having your land fracked over your objections, as Emma Jacobs reported in August:

In 2007, a landman came calling at Mike and Velda Ward's 110-acre golf course in Delphi Falls.

Their wide open acreage right at the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation made the Wards' land a prime target for drilling.

But Ward turned the lease down, and told the sales guy "we don't want anything to do with it."

The landman turned to leave and said over his shoulder, "I'll get it anyway."

Waiting and watching

But the fracking story we covered most this year was the wait.  We watched as the governor set a July 1 deadline for the DEC to release the SGEIS – and then we watched the DEC miss that deadline, releasing instead a summary of the report.

Environmental activists waited for the DEC to announce how long the public comment period on the report would be, hoping to get more time to weigh in and potentially stave off fracking.  A 90-day comment period began in September, and was then extended for another 30 days, now expiring on January 11, 2011.  Drillers objected, saying there’s already been enough deliberation, and that they’re tired of waiting.  We’re currently waiting on the results of an advisory panel, which is supposed to report back on how drilling would affect agencies other than the DEC.

So now we are watching: watching for the DEC to finish the review process, and begin issuing permits.  In December, the commissioner of the DEC told the Innovation Trail that the review could wrap up as early as spring of 2012.

But of course, we’ll have to wait and see.

Your turn

How do you want to see the hydrofracking debate play out in the new year? Let us know in the comments, or talk back to us on Facebook.