Can Woodstock Throw a Monkey Wrench in the Fracking Machine?
03 Feb, 2013
While New Yorkers anxiously await Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision on whether to lift the state’s de facto moratorium on high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” Woodstock, the iconic counter-culture capital of the world, has become the first municipality to call for legislation to make fracking a Class C felony.
Woodstock’s action is just one small town’s response to a rapidly escalating global war over fracking. To both sides in this war—environmentalists and citizens who oppose fracking on the one side and the gas industry and its supporters on the other—the upcoming ruling to allow or ban fracking in New York is being viewed as (you should pardon the expression) a watershed event.
Decisions made in Albany and in towns like Woodstock will likely determine whether fracking goes full steam ahead everywhere, or whether its momentum can be slowed or even stopped. New York, after all, has a rich history of environmental activism and democratic movements, and anti-fracking activism has spread like wildfire over the last couple of years. New York is also home to abundant supplies of clean freshwater, an essential resource that is in crisis globally and that could be endangered by the practice.
Fracking? Please Explain
On January 15, the Woodstock Town Board unanimously passed a resolution to petition New York State to introduce New York Public Law #1—which would impose stiff penalties for fracking and related activities. Before taking this step, the Woodstock Town Board took two others: banning fracking within its borders and outlawing the use of frackwaste fluid, some of which is known as “brine” (because of its heavy salt content), on its roads. This material is used as a de-icing agent in the winter and for dust control on dirt roads in the summer. Despite the fact that brine from oil and gas wells (whether fracked or not) is laden with heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and radioactivity, since 2008 the Department of Environmental Conservation has granted approval for it to be spread on roads in the western part of the state.
New York Public Law #1 was conceived and drafted in May 2011 by the Sovereign People’s Action Network (SPAN) and FrackBusters NY—two citizen anti-fracking groups spearheaded by the late Richard Grossman, a legal historian, democracy activist, and founder of a movement to ban corporate personhood and strip corporations of their special legal privileges.
Fracking is used to extract “unconventional” sources of natural gas or oil, like those found in shale formations. Unlike the large pools of gas that make up “conventional” sources, the gas in shale is typically found in separate tiny bubbles throughout the rock formation. In order to get it, drillers create a “permeable reservoir” by shattering the rock formation that contains the gas.
This involves drilling a deep well straight down into the shale, then turning the well at roughly 90 degrees so that it runs horizontally another 10,000 feet or so. The well is fracked when a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand is pumped in at explosive pressure to force open cracks in the rock, enabling the gas to flow back up to the wellhead.
Since these wells travel under aquifers, lakes, rivers, and streams, much concern has been raised about the potential to contaminate groundwater and other freshwater supplies. Fracking also requires a massive industrial operation, which creates significant air pollution, noise, and truck traffic. Large amounts of various toxic compounds, plus nitrous oxide, a key component of ozone, spew from diesel generators, drill rigs, trucks, condensate tanks, and other equipment, as well as the flaring of wells.
In communities across the country where fracking has been underway for more than a decade, the process has left a trail of poisoned people, serious water pollution, including radioactive contamination of drinking water supplies, and potential threats to the value of people’s homes and land in drilling areas. The gas industry has denied that its actions are responsible for these problems.
Meanwhile, serious questions have been raised about the integrity and economic viability of the entire enterprise. Officials within the United States Energy Information Administration, a division of the Energy Department, have suggested that estimates of gas reserves may have been purposely inflated, a concern graphically illustrated in hundreds of industry emails and internal documents—some of them dripping with contempt.