Dear Uncle Alan: A letter about fracking to a drilling company geologist

July 25, 2011 by Elizabeth Shedd

Dear Uncle Alan,

I’m not sure if you’ll remember, but about a year ago, my dad sent you an e-mail asking you what you thought about hydrofracking, since it had been in the news for a while. You sent back a link to Debunking Gasland and a strongly-worded email that supported the work of the gas company you’d worked for in the past, that’s drilling in Pennsylvania now.

An anti-fracking rally on the Ithaca Commons.An anti-fracking rally on the Ithaca Commons.So aren’t we just two sides of a coin – you the gas driller and me the anti-drilling advocate! You know I love you, right? And that we can get to a better place by talking about where we’re coming from?

I think I understand where you’re coming from: you have respect for the people you worked with who are trying to do a good job, and who have a lot more book smarts in their field than I do. My friends who want drilling in upstate New York come from a different perspective: they work with the rural poor, and they’re moved by the promise of jobs for the area. My concern is that the promise of jobs will mean we overlook the fact that we need clean water and a beautiful area in order to support the jobs that already exist, specifically in tourism and agriculture. 

I used to work three jobs at once, sometimes with people who were in a worse situation than I was – at least I lived in the city of Ithaca. The rents are higher here than in Lodi (for instance) but I didn’t have to pay for gas to get to work, and I don’t have kids to support. So I don’t begrudge anyone the chance to make a living. I have trust in specific people, though, and by that I mean that I trust that people, whether they have a degree or not, are able to put two and two together when their water is clean one day and murky brown after a drilling rig goes up nearby. Or when a friend of mine’s family can no longer use the pond that he was baptized in since drilling happened close to their property. I trust that it’s not “in their head” like they’ve been told. 

Gas Free Seneca, Frack Action, and Shale Shock team up to collect anti-fracking petition signatures at GrassRoots.Gas Free Seneca, Frack Action, and Shale Shock team up to collect anti-fracking petition signatures at GrassRoots.It’s also more than a little sketchy that the aquifers above the two biggest voting areas in the State (Syracuse and New York City) are being explicitly protected from drilling. Doesn’t that imply that there’s a real risk to drilling? Isn’t that telling the rest of the state that we’re expendable? One government official knows there’s a proven risk, and they’ve said the answer is to move. I don’t want to move, and I don’t want other people to have to leave their homes, certainly not for something that we have control over. 

I know there are a lot of people more booksmart than I am who work to make drilling safe, but so far the execution hasn’t proven as good as the theory. A few months ago, I stood in the hallway of a building on Cornell University's campus and waited for a talk on hydrofracking to start. This was right after the report came out that showed natural gas could be dirtier than coal, and it had gotten a lot of publicity, so I thought I’d better get there early and get a good seat. One of the authors of the study came down the hall and was greeted by another attendee. “Have you gotten any backlash?” the man said. And he said the lobbyists had already had, but there hadn’t been any criticism from the scientific community. And then the Duke study came out that showed a connection between gas drilling and tainted water supplies. The experiences of people who have lived out hydrofracking, coupled with the growing non-industry-sponsored studies, overwhelmingly indicate that there’s a difference between what can be done in theory and what’s being done in practice to mitigate the risks. 

This is important not just on a human and ecological level (I think caring for the earth is the same as loving God) but on an economic one, too. Upstate New York’s economy is driven in large part by tourism and agriculture and the jobs that cascade from those industries. And nobody’s going to want to stay at a country B&B if it’s near a drilling rig. Would hikers want to come here in fall foliage season if the noise from the drilling rig is overwhelming? When drilling sites go up, workers stay in local hotels – which is great, unless that means that there’s no room for visitors coming for Cornell graduation, the Apple Festival, or skiing. 

So like I said, you know I love you, right? Can I still come visit you for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest? You can teach me how to really party, for once in my life. And you can tell me your side of the story.

Love from Ithaca,

Elizabeth

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