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Hydraulic Fracturing Activism in the Finger Lakes Region – Introduction

What: The introduction to my senior project focusing on hydraulic fracturing activism in the Finer Lakes region. (The Finger Lakes region is where Ithaca College and Cornell University are located. It is named as such for its number of lakes which, on a map, appear to resemble fingers.)

Originally Written: January, edited at the end of the semester

Background: At Ithaca College, every student in the Writing department needs to complete a senior project to graduate. I chose to write a small collection of narrative articles related to hydraulic fracturing (or, fracking), as it was the most applicable to my outside studies and future career. (First semester of senior year, I interned at the Coalition to Protect New York, a New York-based anti-fracking nonprofit, and throughout last year I sat on the executive board of IC’s anti-fracking club, Frack Off!.)

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Fracking, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing: the terms themselves conjure a world of controversy for thousands of people in the American Midwest, South, and more recently, Northeast. For some, the phrases carry images of children becoming sick, animals developing cancer, and water catching on fire; others think of a struggling economy, steady employment, and the search for a new source of energy.

I entered the fracking debate in the middle of my sophomore year of college. I had just transferred from Emerson College to Ithaca College and, feeling like a freshman all over again, I was looking for friends and ways with which I could fill some free time. The Organization Fair was a great place to start both of those searches.

Although I’m a writing major, my interests extend far past narrative forms and literature. I’ve held an active passion for politics since high school which eventually focused specifically on environmentalism. Frankly, I’ve become invested in the movement based on what I have learned about it, not because of my personal experiences. Most students I’ve met who are interested in environmentalism grew up with a deep appreciation of nature, having spent most of their youth outside and learning about the outdoors. Me? I grew up in a low-income urban neighborhood in New Jersey. The closest I got to playing in a field was the artificially-grown baseball field that we used for softball games.

Regardless, as I studied various social movements, I eventually settled into environmentalism because I learned how high the stakes are. For example, climate change can (and most likely will) have devastating effects on our country and the rest of the world, resulting in food shortages, the spread of new diseases, mass migration, and more. I realized that it would be selfish of me to commit my time to any other movement, despite the possibility that other movements could be more interesting to me.

Because of this, I’ve had an active interest in environmentalism since high school. Since then, I’ve been far more likely to gravitate toward environmental clubs than writing or literature organizations. So, at the Organization Fair at Ithaca College, the first table that I stopped at was the Ithaca College Environmental Society. Next to it, though, sharing a table with them, was Frack Off!.

“Yo, if you’re signing up with ICES, you should sign up with Frack Off!” Behind Frack Off’s trifold – covered in diagrams and photos of the group’s members – were two boys who comically contrasted each other in height. It was the shorter one who had spoken to me, and next to him was a substantially taller boy.

“What’s fracking?”

At first, I almost regretted asking. There followed a long and tedious explanation of the process which I didn’t fully understand, but what came next – “Some people can light their water on fire because of the chemicals associated with fracking,” – caught my attention.

Needless to say, I signed up with the club based on that sentence alone. Now, I am on the executive board of Frack Off!, and although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the topic, I still feel like there is more that I need to learn. Unfortunately, the topic and practice is fairly complex.

It took me awhile to fully grasp how hydraulic fracturing works. Basically, fracking is a method to extract natural gas by drilling wells as far as 10,000 feet below the surface. The fracking company then sends a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground which causes the rock layer – outside of the well – to crack. Natural gas flows from the cracks in the earth into the well, where it comes up from the well where the fracking company can harvest it for fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, America’s natural gas use comprises roughly 26% of all of its total energy consumption. Often, natural gas is used for heating and power generation.

With natural gas being such a staple in the American energy economy, I would have guessed that hydraulic fracturing would not pose an immediate threat to environmental or human safety. However, there are myriad issues surrounding fracking, and despite my involvement in the anti-fracking movement for two and a half years now, I feel like I’m still discovering more. For example, I’ve only recently learned of the possibility that the pressure of drilling and the disruption of the settled rock below the ground could lead to earthquakes.

Then there’s the possibility of the pipes leaking the chemical mixture, leading to the pollution of water streams and wells: what my classmates were referring to earlier.

In the northeast, the most extensive discussion about fracking has focused in Pennsylvania, where fracking is already allowed. Natural gas production has become extremely important in that state as it is above a large gas reservoir called the Marcellus Shale. The Shale also stretches into New York, where, as I write, there is more controversy as to whether the practice should be considered lawful in the state.

As a New Jersey resident, the dangers of fracking didn’t really hit me at first. Like I said, I only heard about fracking for the first time after I transferred to Ithaca College. This is mostly because the Marcellus Shale isn’t under New Jersey. Even after I transferred, though, and began to actively participate in the anti-fracking movement through Frack Off!, I still felt like an unaffected outsider. After all, there wasn’t going to be fracking in my home state, so I didn’t think that my home, family, and friends could possibly be impacted by the practice. Of course, I still cared, but I didn’t feel the immediacy that others I knew felt. I cared because the practice seemed harmful, but it was harmful to communities that felt far from my own. At the time, I didn’t think I had a reason to be more emotionally invested in the movement.

That changed when, in late 2011, there was some discussion among the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware if fracking should be allowed near the Delaware River Basin. This Basin provides water for parts of each of those states, including New York City: or, in other words, for over 15 million Americans. As if this wasn’t driving the point home enough for me, the main rally against this decision was scheduled to be held in Trenton, my hometown and the capital of New Jersey.

Since then, fracking has become increasingly real to me. Even after the policy makers delayed the Delaware River Basin fracking decision indefinitely, I realized that this fight was something more than just a protest happening in my neighboring states that didn’t affect me. Although they didn’t frack the basin, I began to understand that fracking still affected me, and could affect me wherever I went by polluting air, water, and food. Not only that, but it would affect everyone I loved in the northeast just as much.

I am using this project as a learning process for myself, but also for my readers: I plan to cover various dimensions of the fracking issue, specifically in the Finger Lakes region, where Ithaca College is located. This area is rich in activism and research about the issue. My natural instinct is to first shed light on the various environmental issues that fracking causes, but also to better understand the opposing side. I am completely prepared to admit if (and when) I am wrong, and to leave my mind open to new ideas. If anything, I want to be wrong: I do not want to confront this potential horror that the environmental movement is currently facing. Not to mention that the potential benefits of fracking could be huge – an energy source cleaner than coal, jobs in a poor economy, and more. So, during this investigation, I plan to do everything I can to learn more about this controversy and to immerse myself in it further; I hope my readers will use my writing as a vehicle to do the same.

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