LIVERPOOL, NY — Hydraulic fracturing. Also known as “hydrofracking,” it is one word guaranteed to stir up a hornet’s nest of comments.
Whether you live in an urban neighborhood or rural district in the northeastern U.S., you’re sure to have heard about fracking at town, city council and school board meetings, or attended scholarly lectures and viewed certain films and television shows. Upstate New York, in an area roughly from the western border with Canada, including the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier east to the capital district, is home to several large natural gas deposits.
Hydrofracking is the process of injecting liquids, water and chemicals at high pressure into the ground to fracture shale rock. In addition, the region’s proximity to Pennysylvania and Ohio, where fracking is a large-scale, and some say profitable industry, brings the topic to mind more often.
Thus it came up for discussion at the New York State Farm Bureau’s annual conference in Syracuse. The second day of the conference is primarily when members from each county conduct the business of amending and voting on the Farm Bureau’s official policies.
The Schuyler County Farm Bureau presented a proposal to amend the state farm bureau’s existing policy, which supports fracking in general. Schuyler County’s resolution stated, “We oppose horizontal high volume hydrofracking in New York State.” After considerable debate on the conference floor by individual delegates, the resolution was defeated.
Interestingly, the NY Farm Bureau’s published policy document has separate categories for energy (which includes utilities and renewable energy) and mineral resources (drilling for natural gas, fracking and pipelines).
The official state policy is found on Line 44 under mineral resources. “We support drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale, Utica Shale and other future productive shale layers in New York State,” it reads. The policy goes on to include provisions for oil and gas companies to pay for tests that provide a “comprehensive assessment of impacts on the environment and human health.”
The farm bureau policy has tried to anticipate the possibility of harm. Subsections under line 44 state, the bureau “empowers the state to protect the public” and impose penalties for environmental damage. It also recommends that the state attorney general “be more involved in… investigations of (drilling) complaints…”
At the same time, the Farm Bureau policy says (line 44g), “we support prohibiting gas or oil companies from using water from on-site wells for drilling and hydraulic fracturing.” Other rules recommend that the companies come up with “safer alternatives” to the hydraulic chemicals they currently use and ask that the state department of environmental conservation (DEC) require gas companies to “disclose (publicly) their proprietary recipe for hydraulic fracturing fluid.”
Prior to the final vote, one speaker argued that Chemung County, which borders Pennsylania, brings in the largest sales tax revenue in New York State, which she said is a benefit from fracking traffic.
However, Ed Gates, one of two voting delegates from Schuyler County east of Seneca Lake, stood up and gave several reasons for opposing fracking. “I knew I would be a minority voice,” he told a reporter after the vote.
“But I can see their point of view. Dairy farmers are barely making a living and they look at farmers in Pennsylvania getting offers of $5,000 an acre (from gas companies) and people making a good living in construction.”
Gates has operated Seneca Valley Farm in the village of Burdett (pop. about 350) since 1967. He has 2,000 cows, half of which are heifers and calves, on 2,500 acres. Water for household use, for his family and employees-tenants and for the cows comes from just 15 wells on his property. “I might have trouble getting water” if fracking is allowed, he said.
In his remarks, he disputed the supporters’ contentions that evidence proving environmental harm is only anectodal. “There have been recorded instances of contamination from drilling,” he said.
In addition to potential contamination of water sources, he fears that bulldozers will tear up his fields and destroy the topsoil to construct multiple drilling platforms. “Those are spider networks,” he said of the platforms. “I need 2 1/2 acres to feed each of my cows,” which leaves no room for platforms on his farm.
Meanwhile, in Schuyler County and in neighboring Tompkins County near Ithaca, he watches anxiously as some farmers buy up more land with the hope of making a profit if the gas companies come calling. Also, if a majority of landowners within a certain radius approve of fracking, everyone else in that community has to accept it.
Gates, a sturdy 82-year-old, does worry about the future of his farm. “I have three sons and two of them work with me,” he said. “I don’t want to retire. I want to work until I’m physically unable.”
Although New York State imposed a moratorium on large-volume hydraulic fracturing in 2008, Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to make a decision in 2014 to lift the moratorium.
Meanwhile, a test drill was started in 2009 in the obscure community of Maryland in rural Otsego County. Since then, 12 of the county’s 24 towns have voted to restrict drilling, either with a permanent ban or a temporary moratorium.
According to the Oneonta Daily Star newspaper, the only city (Oneonta) and the most populous village (Cooperstown) in the county have imposed restrictions. Within the last two weeks, two additional town boards have voted, both by narrow 3-2 margins, to ban fracking or delay drilling.