Hydrofracking became a big environmental issue in New York state in 2010, and will be the environmental issue in 2011 and likely for many years beyond. An overcast, windy, yet warm Monday hosted a rally just outside the state capitol with two hundred or so anti-fracking activists. I’m going to refrain from the fracking puns this time but you might be able to catch a few on their signs.
The rally, organized by Citizens Campaign for the Environment, kicked off at 10:30 with an hour or so of speakers from across the state. It was a pretty typical as Albany rallies/protests go. I think I’ve said before that I really like shooting these events; it’s a mass of people, exercising their rights, speaking out about what they believe in and displaying some passion. Just great to be around, and homemade signs don’t hurt. I used my lunch break to walk up and check it out. Did I also grab some hotdogs from the Sabrett’s cart? There are no photos of that, so it must not have happened.
It probably helps to talk a little about what hydrofracking is. In certain areas of geological significance, energy rich hydrocarbons — coal, petroleum, natural gas, that sort of stuff — are prevalent. In the past, we’ve simply drilled (or mined) to tap into these deposits, and they’ve fueled us for hundreds of years. But now, most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and rising prices have made deposits that weren’t economically viable seem like a good deal. Natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, a formation extending from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, is one such deposit. A conventional well doesn’t cut it; an aqueous suspension of chemicals must be forced at high pressure to break apart the rock formations and free the gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, in a nutshell.
There are potentially billions of dollars of fossil fuels available here, so what’s the concern? Mainly, what exactly happens to that natural gas and all of those chemicals used to extract it. It’s not really a mystery, since hydrofracking has been going on for a while now, and even in some sections of the Marcellus in Pennsylvania. I highly recommend watching Gasland to see the effects. At risk are New York’s watersheds, where most of the drinking water across the state comes from. Even New York City’s water comes primarily from upstate watersheds and reservoirs, and it’s also the secret to the world’s best bagels.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — which has regulatory authority over the Marcellus hydrofracking — released a draft impact statement in 2009, which was met mostly with skepticism (one good example addresses “‘wiggle words,’ such as ‘proposed’ and ‘to the extent practical'”). Then, in 2010, a retirement incentive and statewide civil service layoffs cut the department’s workforce to the lowest levels in two decades, even forcing the closure of the Rogers Environmental Education Center¹, all in the name of balancing the state budget. Even the Commissioner was fired.
So. Hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale is the biggest environmental issue New York State faces. The DEC barely has the staff to continue normal operations, much less take on another issue that could affect hundreds of thousands (millions? maybe) of state residents. Late in 2010 a bill proposed to delay hydrofracking was vetoed by then-governor Paterson — who instead banned it until July 2011. Thus the current push; after the rally, protesters attempted to speak with state representatives about the issue.
I mention all this to give a basic overview but also to explain some of the signs, like the one at the top of this post. This only scratches the surface; like any other issue, this one is full of nuance and there is no easy answer. Simple slogans aren’t really the solution. New York is in dire financial straits and the gas industry is promising windfalls to both the state and to individuals. But we all drink water. edit: Recent reports also claim that natural gas extraction and use releases more greenhouse gases than coal.
As usual, a rally brings out all sorts. While most of the signs were on point, there were a few mixed messages, like this banner about Bradley Manning. It’s to be expected, and overall everything was well organized, and there wasn’t as much anger in the air as the signs suggest. Lots of smiles, a few instruments here and there, everyone in a good mood — though again, there was a hotdog cart nearby. I know correlation doesn’t equal causality, but it’s something to think about.
Repeating myself now, I have a lot of fun shooting these events, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Hopefully the warmer weather brings more activists of all stripes downtown. In the meantime, here’s a slideshow with a few more photos.
¹ Friends of Rogers, a nonprofit group, has since taken over operation of the center.