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How some upstate environmentalists came to embrace fracking

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By Sarah Laskow in CapitolNewYork.com

12:34 pm Aug. 9, 2012

ITHACA—Sitting on the porch of the ecolodge he's building, Bob Lyon pointed up the hill in front of us.

"That's where the company drilled the well," he said. "We sat here for a months with the tower blinking and the compressor hissing, all summer long."

Lyon's ecolodge is going up in New York's Southern Tier, on top of one of the thickest, most potentially lucrative sections of the Marcellus Shale, which is possibly the single largest source of newly accessible natural gas in the country.

His family owns almost 300 undeveloped acres in Tioga County—a private nature preserve. Every morning, he sees a bald eagle fishing in one of his ponds, with her two eaglets. Twice a week, two pairs of mating bob cats pass through.

The gas company that drilled the well on top of Lyon's hill wanted to start fracking—extracting natural gas using a controversial drilling technique without which the gas would be unreachable—until the New York Department of Environmental Conservation put a moratorium on the practice.

With the ban in place, the company capped the well and retreated. From the porch, there's no evidence the industry was there at all.

Since then, Lyon's been released from the original gas lease on the land. But if the gas company were to come back, to open the possibility of a new lease, he would sign it.

Under New York law a company could harvest the gas underneath his property, anyway, from a well drilled elsewhere, paying him royalties for the bounty extracted. But Lyon, 50, a dentist, a philanthropist, the owner of a small construction company whose family has lived in this area as long as any white people have, would also sign the lease because he's all for natural gas drilling.

Lyon considers himself an environmentalist. He moved out here to the country full-time because he wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. He has an agreement with the state that keeps him from mowing his lawns in mid-July so that fawns and the chicks of wild turkeys have safe places to nestle into the tall grass. He cares deeply about the quality of the water on this piece of land: He's seen pintails, blue- and green-winged teals, hooded mergansers, common mergansers, and once, three weeks last sweltering summer, a great white heron who had no business being this far north.

"They wouldn't be here unless the water was crystal-clear perfect," Lyon said.

He knows there are risks to fracking, and that accidents have happened in other states, and that the gas industry, like any industry, has a financial incentive to take shortcuts.

"If anyone stands to lose a gigantic amount, it would be me and my wife," he said. "We invested our life savings in this property."

But he sees benefits to drilling, too, including the relative environmental benefit of a fuel source that produces less carbon pollution than other fossil fuels. He thinks the gas industry has had enough time and made enough mistakes that it can operate with a measure of common sense now. He's pleased that the state's Department of Environmental Conservation took the time to look closely at fracking and at the best way to regulate the industry. Now he thinks it's time for them to get out of the way.

FRACKING’S SUPPORTERS HAVE ALWAYS MADE for a strange coalition.

Three years ago, big environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace were arguing for natural gas development without any of the caveats they bring up today. Opposition came primarily from small grassroots organizations that were at least as concerned with local environmental impacts as with the global-scale carbon impact on which national groups were focused.

Many of the locally focused grassroots opponents want to ban fracking altogether, and in response, the national environmental groups have grown more cautious in their support of natural gas. The tentative, unusual alliance between environmentalists and the natural gas industry has fallen apart, and the debate in Washington has reverted to more typical form, with Republicans arguing that government regulation is stifling business opportunity and Democrats arguing that government-imposed restrictions are the only thing stopping the profit-hungry industry from doing irreparable damage to the environment.

It's still possible to find people in the environmental movement who think fracking for natural gas should go forward, with the right regulations. It’s also possible to find Democratic politicians, including President Obama, who agree with them.

If there is such a thing as safe fracking, New York arguably has the best chance of any state of pulling it off. Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration has proceeded more slowly than other state governments with such a large and potentially productive sections of shale within their jurisdictions. This summer, the administration floated the idea, via a front-page article in The New York Times, of opening up five counties in the Southern Tier for fracking, if local governments approve the drilling. A real fracking plan will reportedly be out by Labor Day.)

I met Bob Lyon because I went looking for people in the Southern Tier who actually believed in what Obama and Cuomo seem to be promising. I wasn't sure these people even existed: the position that Obama and other politicians have staked out feels like a mushy political ground between the greener Democrats worried about unforeseeable environmental consequences of fracking and anti-regulation Republicans who think Americans deserve quick access to any fossil fuels found in the ground.

But I found at least a handful of people living in the five counties where fracking could go forward—an organic dairy farmer, a retired international businessman, a family that gets its electricity from solar panels— who cared deeply about the fate of their land, water and air, who didn't trust the gas industry to protect those resources, and who thought that New York should let fracking go ahead.

These people aren't necessarily representative of views in the area. All of them identified as environmentalists. All of them owned land and stood to benefit financially from gas leases, although all of them said money wasn't a motivating factor for them. All of them belonged or had belonged to landowners' coalitions, some of which are friendlier with the gas industry than others. There are plenty of people in the Southern Tier who don't share their perspective—drilling opponents convinced that fracking will ruin the place they've build their homes and drilling supporters who aren't particularly concerned about the environment.

One way of looking at the politicians and people who think safe fracking is possible: They're caught up in the Great American Fantasy—my lawyer's better than your lawyer. Write the right regulations or draw up a stronger lease and any potential issues will disappear (or result in substantial financial remuneration).

But the pro-drilling environmentalists I talked to were thoughtful about the risk of fracking and also mindful of the rewards. Some of them thought it was important for the state to closely monitor and regulate fracking. Others thought the best protection against environmental risk was a strong lease with protections built in. All of them also acknowledged that the process isn't perfect, that accidents happen, that they're betting a valued asset—their land—on their conviction that fracking can be done right.

ONE THING ABOUT THESE PEOPLE: THEY are decidedly not impressed by that flammable-tap-water thing, made famous by the anti-fracking documentary Gasland. In the Southern Tier, the tap water's been flammable for years, well before anyone ever heard about fracking. Setting your faucet aflame is a parlor trick, they say—a gimmick to impress newcomers.

"People have blown it out of proportion," said Christy Everitt. "There was methane in the water before."

Everitt, 50, lives outside of Vestal, New York, in Broome County. Her husband grew up here, and she grew up just across the border, in Pennsylvania. They bought this property in 1995, and they plan on living here for the rest of their lives.

They built their house on top of a hill, facing south to suck up passive solar energy, and down below three substantial solar panels tilt toward the sky. They grow vegetables in a small garden, compost their food scraps, and are raising chickens. When it's hot out, they don't depend on air conditioning: They retreat to the cooler basement or, as on the day I came by, sit outside on a bench beneath a tree, where a breeze often floats by.

This land had been available for a while when Everitt and her husband had the chance to purchase it. There was already a power line on the property and a gas pipeline, features that aren't exactly popular with potential landowners. But to her mind, those are the things required to live with billions of people on the planet.

"Do I really want it in my backyard? Not really," she said. "But I don't want to use it and have no responsibility for it coming into my hands."

That's one reason she supports drilling. People like solar, but they don't really know what's involved, she said—how many big, unsightly panels it takes to create enough electricity to power even one house. They fight wind turbines, too, just because they're ugly.

"Most of the people who oppose gas, they don't have their facts quite straight," she said. "I don't want anything to happen to this community or to my property."

Not that she trusts gas companies, which have very different needs from communities and landowners. The first time a land agent showed up a offered her family a lease, she and her husband turned down the offer, because they didn't have enough time to look into what signing that lease would mean. It wasn't until a few year later, when they started hearing about the drilling going on Pennsylvania, that they found time to educate themselves.

Everitt had the Farm Bureau come to do a presentation on fracking and argued to her neighbors that they should slow down the process, not start drilling too fast. She started scouring the Internet for information and exchanging new knowledge with people in town. She also joined a coalition in Vestal and one based in Friendsville, Pennsylvania.

Landowners' groups like these not only help neighbors educate each other but can give landowners bargaining power when they deal with gas companies.

Richard Lasky, a retired business man who worked in publishing in New York and fashion in Paris, started a coalition in Chenango County after a land agent paid a visit to his house and tried to convince him to sign a lease.

"He starts explaining to me how rich I'm going to be," Lasky said.

As the agent went on about the advantages of singing with a large company, Lasky looked at the lease in his hand and found that it was actually two leases. When he asked which he was meant to sign, the agent said he had to sign both, that the company would take the two leases and combine parts from each to create a final lease. Lasky, a veteran of many a business deal, thought that proposal was crazy and said as much.

"He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye, and he said to me, 'Don't worry. I'll take care of you,'" said Lasky. "That's what got me angry, that they could look you straight in the face and promise that everything in the world is going to be yours."

He called together his neighbors and started a landowners’ coalition that eventually grew to represent the owners of, collectively, more than 100,000 acres of land. They had a lawyer draw up a lease with strong environmental protections in it, with the idea that their lease, rather than a gas company's, would be the starting point for negotiations.

Everitt's coalition also consulted a lawyer, one that had worked in the past for the gas industry, to help draw up a lease. She and her family did eventually sign a lease with a gas company. It was a good lease, with environmental protections strong enough to mitigate the environmental risks of gas drilling and the inherent risks of working with a multi-billion dollar gas company, she said.

To more than one of the people I talked to, including Everitt, it seemed that the environmentalists who are fighting to ban fracking are fighting the wrong battle. In their view, gas drilling's going to happen in this part of New York sooner or later, and by pushing for a ban, opponents are undermining the power of landowners' coalitions to extract promises of greater protections from gas companies. While New York's state government has been working on tightening regulations, the value in Everitt's area was reassessed and the worth of the gas taken into account. Property taxes went up, and without the income that gas companies promise, not everyone could afford that bump.

"You've pushed people to the point where they have fewer choices," Everitt said. "They think, ‘I don't know if my coalition is going to get a deal.’ They step away from the coalition because they feel they don't have a choice. They sign a lease even if they know it's not the best choice or the best deal."

THE PRO-FRACKING ENVIRONMENTALISTS CAN OFTEN SOUND indistinguishable from the opponents of drilling. Their list of concerns, at least, is identical: wastewater disposal, disclosure of fracking chemicals and monitoring of the wells' production volumes. They’re just not convinced that fracking will inevitably ruin their land, and see the risks as a reasonable trade-off for the benefits.

Being so close to the border with Pennsylvania, where fracking is permitted, some of them know farmers who've leased their land to gas companies and been able to pour the proceeds right back into their struggling farms.

Neil Vitale, who's owned a farm in Steuben County for more than 45 years, often travels across the border into the Pennsylvania to visit a machinery dealer there. When farmers in Pennsylvania first leased their land and received signing bonuses for the gas company, the dealer told Vitale he could barely keep up with the orders for new machines.

"He was so busy selling new, he couldn't even go over the old stuff to resell," Vitale said.

Vitale, a soft-spoken man who lives in a house he and his sons built, started farming organically 15 years ago and has been officially certified for the last ten.

"I knew we were using too many antibiotics," he said.

He started phasing out pesticides from his land and antibiotics from his herd, and after a few years applied for official certification in order to sell milk to Horizon, the organic dairy company.

Running a small dairy farm is tough financially, though.

"Most farmers in this area could use the extra income that could be generated from gas drilling for their farm," he said. "The small, family-operated dairy farmer is going to be extinct. There's going to be plenty of milk because there's large conglomerate dairies that milk thousands of cows. Those cows never see grass, and they're going to produce the milk for our country."

Keeping family farmers in business and happy cows is the field is on Vitale's list of fracking benefits. He's most moved, though, by the prospect of home-grown energy.

"I want our water protected,” he said. “I want our soils protected. I don't want any contamination. That's why I'm an organic farmer. But I know we need energy. There’s nothing free in this world. There's environmental impact for everything you produce energy with."


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