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BY SARAH FERGUSON | More than 500 “fracktivists” lined the sidewalk outside Binghamton University to greet President Obama as he recently toured Upstate New York.
While Obama came to Binghamton on Aug. 23 to pitch his new rating system for reining in college tuition costs, the activists were there to protest his support for the controversial method of natural gas extraction known as hydrofracking.
“Ban fracking now!” they chanted as the president’s motorcade sped past. Obama, standing in the front of a large black bus, smiled and appeared to wave momentarily.
Among the crowd were several current and former New York City residents, including Andrew Castrucci, one of the founders of the artist collective Bullet Space on E. Third St., who arrived bearing an array of colorful anti-fracking posters designed by his students at the School of Visual Arts and other Upstate artists.
Castrucci said he felt a little weird demonstrating against the president.
“I voted for Obama twice, and this is the first time I’ve ever protested against him. But he’s starting to sound like a commercial for the gas industry,” Castrucci said of Obama’s support for expanding domestic gas production in the U.S. as a vehicle for energy independence — despite mounting concerns over groundwater contamination by hydrofracking and the level of radioactive radon in both the drilling’s waste water and the “fracked” gas itself.
“It’s really sad that a politician cannot exist without the gas companies having him in their pockets,” Castrucci added. “That’s a real failure of our democracy.” At his side was his 8-year-old son, Renzo, who had pasted a “Ban Fracking” sticker over his mouth to show how “We have no voice,” he said.
The demonstration was organized by New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of more than 200 groups, which took out a full-page ad in the Binghamton Press & Sun on Aug. 23 with the headline: “President Obama: Stop covering up the science on fracking!”
A few miles away, several dozen pro-drillers gathered along Interstate 81 to show Obama their support for hydrofracking. One group, the Joint Landowners Coalition, had a flatbed truck bearing a large painted sign that read: “Lower School Taxes: NY NEEDS NATUAL GAS” — having forgotten the “R” in “Natural.”
New York’s “Southern Tier” — lying west of the Catskill Mountains and bordering Pennsylvania — is ground zero in the battle over hydrofracking. Proponents say gas revenues could revive this depressed region, which has been losing farms and manufacturing jobs since the 1970s.
But opponents say the boom-and-bust cycle of gas drilling — and the environmental risks to the region’s water and tourism industry — will ultimately drain the economy further.
“We’re calling it ‘vampire economics’ because it’s all about coming, sucking and leaving,” said Isaac Silberman-Gorn, an organizer with Citizen Action in Binghamton.
During his speech on Aug. 23, Obama referred to fracked gas as a “transitional fuel” in the effort to stem climate change. But recent studies have shown that the amount of methane released by shale gas wells could actually accelerate climate change more than our current reliance on so-called dirty fuels like coal and oil.
“Here in this region, we’ve had four 200-year floods in a period of six years,” Silberman-Gorn pointed out. “They are going to continue to get worse. It’s my generation that has to deal with that.”
Notably absent from Obama’s Upstate tour was Governor Cuomo, whom many accuse of trying to play both sides of the fracking debate. Earlier this year, Cuomo extended the now five-year moratorium on hydrofracking in New York, pending a review of the health impacts.
But a growing infrastructure of gas pipelines and compressor stations continues to be constructed across the state, leading critics to believe the governor is just waiting until after his presumed re-election to lift the moratorium and allow drilling to proceed on an “experimental” basis.
Gas proponents say tapping the Marcellus Shale could provide cheap energy to New York and attract manufacturing, while reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. “Drill a Gas Well, Bring a Soldier Home,” urge weathered billboards posted along roads and farms Upstate. But opponents question how much of the fracked gas would actually remain here.
“The idea that we’re going to be swimming in cheap domestic gas is a myth,” maintained Silberman-Gorn. “Here in the U.S., gas is $3 per 1,000 cubic feet, while overseas its upward of $15. These companies have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to get this gas overseas and maximize profits.”
Hence the concern about the so-called Millennium, Constitution, Spectra and Rockaway pipelines, which activists believe will be used to transport fracked gas to East Coast ports for export.
“Obama has signed an M.O.U. [memorandum of understanding] agreement for gas export with India and China and eight other nations,” Silberan-Gorn added. “We’re dealing with the most powerful lobbies in the world. This is about multinational corporations that run the world and bought our president.”
While companies are currently barred from fracking in New York City’s Upstate watershed, Castrucci said city folk should not feel immune.
“Right now under the current rules, they can drill a quarter mile from the watershed,” said Castrucci, who now lives half the year in an old house bordering the Unadilla River in Mt. Upton, N.Y. “But this is a new technology, so we don’t really know how that will affect us, because these aquifers are all connected.”
The toxic mix of chemicals injected into the shale wells could migrate, he fears.
“They are already dumping the radioactive brine [waste from gas drilling] from Pennsylvania in Upstate New York,” Castrucci noted.
“All that Greek yogurt that they’re now serving in public schools is produced Upstate,” he added of the Chobani yogurt factory in South Edmonston, N.Y. “Where do you think they’re getting the water from?”