Hydro-fracking, hope and polarization

Hydro-fracking, hope and polarization

Since the rise of importance of the Marcellus Shale, the question of hydraulic fracturing in rural parts of Pennsylvania and upstate New York has lit up numerous conversations about the economic and environmental impact of natural gas drilling– particularly the effect on the water table and watershed in these areas, and how those feed urban areas like Philadelphia and New York City.

I first became aware of what was going on through an article in New York Magazine a couple years ago. I was fascinated to see my hometown, Binghamton NY, covered in such an emotionally exciting way. Most of the coverage you see about these parts of upstate New York are about the ongoing struggles of survival: an economic depression since the 1980s has ravaged this rural-industrial and robbed it of the resources it needs to grow again. Luckily, it wasn’t terribly affected by the burst of housing bubble–because it never saw the rise in value in the first place. It’s the seventh cloudiest city in the country, something that is not lost on its residents and their mood.

The prospect of economic vitality, especially for struggling farmers with lots of land on the Shale, was almost other-worldly. Things like this just don’t happen in Binghamton. I called my (politically conservative) dad to ask him what was going on, what was the level of excitement. “Oh, quite a bit,” he said. I asked if people were thinking that this could be something to finally rescue the Southern Tier’s economy. “Yeah, for sure,” he said. There were concerns about the effects on water table, of course, but overall, it seemed like a good deal that was going to help a lot of people out, and in turn, boost the local economy.

Since then, the debate has turned into one of the most heated discussions I’ve seen in the region. Environmentalists are warning about the severe danger to water sources that hydro-fracking poses, and that’s some pretty frightening stuff. Contaminated water screws millions of people, period, and there’s little that can be done to remedy a situation once it’s happened. Looking at BP in the Gulf, there’s a reason why people are scared. Big corporations largely can’t be trusted to be good stewards when there are serious dollars to be made.

I certainly don’t want to damn this message. I do, however, want to shake some sense into some of its messengers, though. I got request on Facebook a couple weeks ago to join an anti-hydrofracking campaign page that was just one of the most elitist pieces of lazy activism I’ve ever seen. The subtext was basically, “Don’t let those stupid hicks upstate rent their land and ruin it all for us city folk.” I wish I were exaggerating.

It reminds me of when the Democratic campaigns sent all kinds of activists and volunteers to do campaigning in the swing states in 2004. One of the reasons that it didn’t work was that it looked to those on the receiving end that Washington hucksters were parachuting in overeducated city kids who didn’t know jack about what life is like in fly-over land. I can’t say that I blame them.

If you talk–actually go and talk— to the people who are considering these leases, and their neighbors, you’ll hear a much more complicated set of arguments than what media who are covering the issue might lead you to believe. They’re concerned more than what’s represented in media stories about the environmental effects. They want a comprehensive, fair examination of practices, and they want, as my dad says, “people who don’t have a horse in the race” to be responsible for transparency and accountability. They want economic incentive and punishment, and for the companies to be responsible for cleaning up after themselves.

If you listen, what you’ll hear is this: Don’t take our hope away from us completely. In the Shale lies a lot of promise, and for some people that promise is of desperate proporations. The people of upstate are largely willing to listen to reason and work through the issues. No one takes too kindly to being bossed around and bullied by people who they think has more money or political clout than them.

Progressives should know better.