For several years, New York made headlines by continuing to delay (and delay…) the decision whether to allow shale gas development. Then the state made history last December by saying no because the risks to health and the environment were too great.
Yet it’s impossible to escape the reach of the national shale gas and oil boom. Even with a prohibition on production, New York has to wrestle with a growing stream of waste coming across state borders (as well as an expanding spider web of infrastructure and oil trains).
Whenever I see a spiderweb in the woods, I’m awestruck by the careful, diligent work it took and the ability of a small insect to adjust its design to the surrounding trees or bushes. Unfortunately, the opposite is true when it comes to the expanding web of gas pipelines and compressor stations being planned nationwide, which would take years to build, affect large areas, and have impacts that last for decades.
No wonder communities in the path of development refuse to be ensnared.
I once worked at an office with a big sign in the employee kitchen: “Your parents don’t work here. Clean up after yourself.” Some years later when I began to visit gas drilling areas, those words often came to mind. Today, Earthworks released a report detailing the many ways that gas and oil operators—and the regulators charged with overseeing them—appear unwilling to heed this basic request.
When it comes to statements on fracking by elected officials, my motto is usually “stunning but not surprising.” Yesterday, that was replaced by “surprising and stunningly amazing”—thanks to New York Governor Cuomo’s decision to prohibit shale gas drilling in the state.
This week, New York State’s Comptroller issued a report examining the work of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in an era of budget cutbacks. The conclusion: “The combination of increased responsibilities, reduced staffing, and ongoing fiscal pressure raises questions regarding the DEC’s capacity to carry out its critical functions.”
Specifically, DEC funding is down over 15 percent since 2008 and new responsibilities haven’t come with new staff and resources. DEC is being forced to do more with less—and this in a state with a de facto moratorium on shale gas development.
In the early days of the shale gas and oil boom, communities were often caught off guard by the onslaught of activity. Geoscientist David Hughes sums up the phenomenon: the shale play lifecycle starts with “discovery followed by leasing frenzy.”
Fortunately, many communities and organizations have caught up fast. Landowners who were “fleased” are educating others to avoid similar problems. Municipalities and states have passed hundreds of measures to restrict drilling. The health, environmental, and social risks of oil and gas development are being researched and documented.
Even better, some residents and local and regional groups quickly realized the importance of coming out swinging in their own defense. Virginia provides a key, inspiring example.
The idea that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” may sometimes work on a personal level—but it couldn’t be further from the truth for communities living on the frontlines of gas development. Yet the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) doesn’t seem to have any problem hiding information from the people who most need it.
For most of us, cleaning up after oneself is a basic guideline for living and working with others. Taking responsibility for the environmental costs of products is an emerging business concept. Then there’s the oil and gas industry—which prefers a “you deal with it instead” approach to waste management. The result? Tainted rivers downstream from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes near injection wells, and radioactive drill cuttings in landfills. And then there are the giant pits where operators store millions of gallons of waste at a time.