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Proposed Legislation to Ban Hydrofracking in Erie County

Our elected officials in Erie County are considering legislation that would ban the industrial activity of hydrofracking in the county, to include drilling, treatment/storage/transfer of the hazardous waste, and the prohibition of new gas and oil infrastructure such as compressor stations, storage wells, and pipelines. Their leadership in this effort supports their mission to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community.

The gas and oil industry will contend that this activity will be a boon to the economy of the county, but one must ask, for how long and for whom? The supporters will argue that drilling is safe and, again, one wonders for whom, and for how long? They will argue that we need “clean” natural gas as a bridge fuel between gas/oil and renewables, but all fossil fuels contribute to an increase in climate destabilization. Besides, we don’t need any bridge when really clean renewables are available right now.

Let’s look closely at these claims about safety, “clean” gas and renewables.

Research and experience in the last few years has made it clear that fracking is a hazardous industrial activity and cannot be done safely when viewed over time. We have only been fracking for gas and oil for a short time and therefore have limited knowledge of the long term impacts. Ask any engineer about the longevity of human constructions like wells and pipes used in fracking and they will, to a person, say that they will fail. Perhaps not in 10 years, or even 20, but they will fail. This means that even if we were convinced that fracking does not harm us now (and evidence suggests it does), we would be leaving toxic material in the ground that will, in some future generation, emerge to poison our children’s children. Those of us who live in Western New York know the consequences of legacy waste. Do we in this generation want to be responsible for poisoning future generations?

The second issue is the myth of “clean fuel.” Natural gas, or methane, does burn cleaner than oil. No one disputes that. However, recent research on “fugitive emissions” that includes the entire process of extraction of methane from shale has found that shale gas is as dirty as coal. We don’t need a bridge fuel as dirty as the one we trying to replace. In fact, methane’s effect as a greenhouse gas has been found to be 25-33 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year time frame, and 70-105 times greater over a 10-year time frame (see Howarth, Santoro, and Ingraffea: “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations”).

And last, and most important, we don’t need natural gas! We can move to renewables right now without the need for any bridge fuel that contributes to global warming. Climate change is real; we’ve lived through Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Isabel, forest fires, droughts, and so on. A recent survey from George Mason University reports that at this time even two-thirds of Republicans acknowledge climate change and up to three-quarters of them say we should move to renewables now. This is a total shift in the national discourse from a year ago, and we need to move quickly if we are going to mitigate the worse consequences of global climate destabilization.

Governments have two major mechanisms to frame economic and community development—the incentive and the disincentive. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pledge to invest $1.5 billion in solar energy through the New York Sun Initiative is an incentive, as is the Renewable Portfolio Standard that declares we would be 30 percent renewable by 2015. But we also need disincentives—mechanisms that make it difficult to do the wrong thing. A ban on hydrofracking and its industrial support is such a policy because it frustrates the development of a methane industry that we don’t need, that would endanger the health of our county residents and land now and in the future, and would divert investment from renewables. This is certainly the least favorite type of government action, but in the face of the urgency of climate change and the increase in severe weather events, we are wise to use all of our tools.

Call your Erie County legislators and let them know your support the ban on hydrofracking and encourage them to take a leadership role in the transition to a 21st century economy and renewable energy system.

- Lynda Schneekloth

Chair, Sierra Club Niagara Group

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