Westchester for Change, a grassroots group of activists comprised of residents throughout the county, held an event Tuesday night to educate the public about hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas drilling that many environmentalists say causes air, water and soil pollution and poses health risks to both humans and animals.
The event, which was held at the Rye Nature Center, drew more than 50 people. Dave Publow, a member of United for Action, a New York City-based grassroots group that co-sponsored Tuesday’s event, gave a 30-minute presentation on hydraulic fracturing, which is also known as hydrofracking.
Publow said 90 percent of natural gas drilling in the U.S. is done via hydrofracking, a method that originated in 1947 and involves pumping large amounts of “fracking fluid”—comprised of fresh water, sand and chemicals—into wells drilled into the ground to release natural gas. The process requires the clearing of about five acres of land—or 3500 trees—per well and three to eight million gallons of fresh water to create enough pressure to release the gas.
The issue is particularly important in New York because the state sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that extends from New York’s Southern Tier through parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.
The Marcellus Shale, which has been described as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” has been a target for gas companies who believe that hydrofracking can release gas deposits in the shale that can be used to supply energy to millions of New Yorkers.
Hydrofracking has become a hot-button issue in the wake of the movie Gasland, an Oscar-nominated film about the hazards of natural gas drilling. In the movie, a Pennsylvania town’s water supply has been so badly contaminated that residents actually can light their water on fire.
Publow said that though the gas industry denies the hazards and some states contend that hydrofracking will provide a valuable source of energy and potential revenue, its risks outweigh the rewards.
“[There’s] a myth that gas drilling is good for the economy,” Publow said. “One of the things that people talk about is that there is a lot of money in all this stuff, even though gas currently is at a very low price level.”
"What it doesn’t really take into account is that if you do something like that in upstate New York and change what is a tourist haven for camping and hiking and turn it into an industrial wasteland, your tourism dollar—which is substantially larger than your gas dollar—will dry up, as will agricultural concerns,” he added.
He said that deregulation and recent legislation in favor of gas drilling have led to a lack of oversight that poses a danger to public health. Drillers have not revealed what is in fracking fluid because it is deemed proprietary. The country’s current energy policy also exempts hydrofracking from key provisions of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it will study the effects of natural gas drilling. In December, , but issued his own moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking while still allowing vertical drilling, which many groups have argued is just as dangerous. The ban is in effect until July 1.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not clearly stated his position on hydrofracking, though groups in upstate New York recently protested and demanded Cuomo issue an executive order banning municipal water treatment plants from accepting wastewater from gas drilling sites.
In New York, many environmentalists are concerned about contamination of the Delaware River Basin, a watershed where most of New York City gets its water supply. Publow encouraged attendees at Tuesday’s meeting to file a petition with the Delaware Basin Commission to oppose hydrofracking near the watershed.
Publow said that there are inherent dangers to public health caused by both the chemicals in fracking fluid and the water that comes up from the wells. He said studies have shown that materials such as benzene, detergents, carcinogens, radons, hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, heavy metals and uranium have been found in the water.
He said that it was time for the U.S. to invest in safer and alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind.
Though Publow was essentially speaking to the converted Tuesday night, some people in the audience did not agree with all his points.
Rye resident Irwin Lefkowitz asked how New York could be expected to maintain its energy supply.
“If you turn off from gas, how is New York going to get gas right now?” Irwin Lefkowitz. He added later that “fracking is the real problem, not necessarily gas. It’s how you get it, but not what it is.”
Energy investor Paul Elliot spent much of the evening debating Publow. He said he disagreed with Publow’s argument that states cannot generate significant revenue from gas drilling and pointed to Pennsylvania and Texas as examples of the benefits states can reap from allowing drilling.
Elliot said after the event that he did not think hydrofracking should be banned.
“The industry and conservation groups need to work together to make it as safe as possible.”