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Movies, music, NY politics may determine US fracking policy

With the state of New York reported to be on the verge of lifting its four-year ban on extracting natural gas from shale through hydraulic fracturing, the opponents of fracking are organizing for a high-profile global political battle, using New York as a crucial test case.

Bill McKibben, an author and activist who is leading the opposition to fracking, called the pending decision by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo a “gut check” on par with Cuomo’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that gave the potential 2016 presidential aspirant national media coverage.

Also pressing the case are advocates for the oil and gas industry, such as Energy in Depth campaign manager Tom Shepstone, who said, “Upstate New York unequivocally needs dramatic action from an economic standpoint. And here’s an industry that will do it immediately, without any subsidies.” Energy in Depth is a campaign financed by the Independent Petroleum Associated of America.

Cuomo seeking compromise

NPR and other news outlets have reported that Cuomo is considering a compromise that would allow local towns and cities to permit fracking if they choose as an exercise of “home rule.” The permits would include some statewide restrictions designed to protect the environment.

However, neither the environmental opponents nor the oil and gas industry endorses that compromise.

Both sides are proceeding as if the stakes are higher than merely extracting natural gas from farmlands in New York. Billions of dollars are on the line, but so is the political viability of fracking – the best hope right now for American energy independence based on fossil fuels. The battle also is over how fracking will be defined, as a promising technique to unlock new energy sources, or as an environmental menace so terrible that its benefits are not worth the cost.

Environmentalists shift to opposition

When large, deep U.S. natural gas deposits were discovered a few years ago, some environmentalists supported efforts to extract it. The burning of coal, widely used in power plants, produces twice the volume of carbon emissions as natural gas, and such emissions have been blamed for global warming.

The Sierra Club and the American Lung Association both took tens of millions of dollars in donations from energy companies to promote natural gas as a “clean but flawed alternative,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said. A late-1990s refinement of fracking, a technique first used in 1947, widely was understood to be the method that allowed energy developers access to the gas deposits.

Now, many in the environmental community oppose fracking. The vast Marcellus Shale, which winds beneath several Northeastern states where energy development previously was rare, has become the battleground.

Making a stand in New York

With Pennsylvania committed to developing its shale gas resources, New York, which includes the nation’s largest city and its media center, has emerged as the place where both environmentalists and the energy industry seek a galvanizing victory.

Western New York long has suffered from a stagnant economy. The energy industry is offering the prospect of 15,000 jobs and more revenue for local governments. Landowners with exploitable shale beneath their properties look with envy at the $2 billion that Pennsylvania landowners have earned in the past year by allowing fracking on their farms, according to a report on CBS.

Global energy implications

But beyond New York, the energy industry and its supporters see the natural gas boom as a path to American energy self-sufficiency and a way to reduce pollution and carbon emissions while maintaining affordability.

John Deutch, an MIT professor who also serves as a director of Cheniere Energy, said in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that, because of fracking, “a United States hopelessly dependent on imported oil and natural gas is a thing of the past. Most energy officials project that North America will have the capacity to be a net exporter of oil and natural gas by the end of this decade.”

Not only would natural gas replace coal for electricity generation, Deutch said, but eventually, some refined product from natural gas could become a significant transportation fuel.

However, Deutch added, “[T]he impact [of such extensive natural-gas usage] on air and water quality is significant.” So is the effect of hundreds of thousands of new gas wells that would have to be drilled throughout the United States, along with the above-ground equipment that services the wells, he said. The briny, polluted water that the fracking process discharges would have to be captured, removed, treated and disposed.

Public objections to environmental effects are, Deutch said, a potentially mortal threat to the nation’s ability to exploit its gas resources.

Celebrities join the grassroots foes

One measure of the momentum of the environmental movement’s stance against fracking is that celebrities are adopting the cause. Although local politicians headlined an Aug. 27 rally in Albany, actors Debra Winger (“Terms of Endearment”) and Kenosha native Mark Ruffalo (“The Kids are All Right”) also appeared.

The celebrity roster will expand with Artists Against Fracking, a group organized by John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and his son Sean, with support from the surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, and dozens of other actors and rock musicians, including Lady Gaga and Alec Baldwin. The campaign is meant to be worldwide, but right now its website shouts “Don’t Frack New York” and has a window that helps a user write an email or make a call to Gov. Cuomo.

“Natural gas has been sold as clean energy,” Sean Lennon wrote in The New York Times. “But when the gas comes from fracturing bedrock with about five million gallons of toxic water per well, the word ‘clean’ takes on a disturbingly Orwellian tone. Don’t be fooled. Fracking for shale gas is in truth dirty energy.”

One of the early anti-fracking protests was the 2010 documentary “Gasland.” The film is by a rural Pennsylvania native, Josh Fox, who decided to investigate after a gas company offered $100,000 for rights to drill on his family’s farm. “Gasland” is famous for a scene, shot in Colorado, in which a homeowner is able to light gas from his water faucet as water is pouring out.

The energy industry objects to “Gasland,” claiming it was “misleading and factually inaccurate,” in the words of Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Now the industry is preparing its public-relations attack on the sequel, “Gasland 2,” with Energy in Depth’s posting a lengthy open letter to Fox, recommending “a few segments … that would demonstrate to your audience that this effort is not guided by blind ideology, as was on display in ‘Gasland.’”

Fox’s stated goal, according to the National Journal, is “to ban fracking in the United States.”

The gas industry and some fracking advocates are on different pages as to how to respond to the protests.

Some industry executives point out that fracking is not new technology, and claim it has been regulated and used safely for decades. But Deutch said greater transparency will be required — with fracking operations continually measuring “key environmental indicators such as water use and water composition throughout the process,” and reporting such data publicly. Deutch also called for improved coordination between state and federal regulators.

Thus far, the fracking issue has not been loudly debated in the presidential campaign, and is not playing out nationally with nearly the intensity of the New York campaign. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying fracking’s impact on water supplies, but it has said there will be no final report until 2014.

For now, by default, the states are left largely on their own to decide the fate not just of fracking in their own backyards, but also of the availability of the vast new stores of natural gas that could transform the U.S. energy market. Their decisions will be based on local concerns, balancing how much money states and cities could make in fees and taxes, against the political effect of a focused environmental celebrity campaign brimming with hip cachet. Who wants to be on the wrong side of the Beatles?

John Stodder is the roving web editor for The Dolan Co.

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