Fracking Fracas in TriBeCa

Anti-fracking protestors gathered outside of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Nov. 30 before a public hearing on whether to allow fracking in New York. Members of the opposition group included politicians, lawyers, scientists and residents. MetroFocus/John Farley.

The public comment period on hydraulic fracking was extended just as the last of four statewide hearings was set to conclude Wednesday night in Manhattan.

More than 1,000 people showed up at a public hearing in TriBeCa to voice both support (1 percent, by extremely rough estimate) and opposition (99 percent, again, roughly) to fracking, the natural gas drilling technique that involves injecting chemicals into bedrock deep below the Earth’s surface.

Unlike in previous hearings upstate, where it was reported that crowds were somewhat evenly split between pro- and anti-fracking camps and many residents stand to profit from a repeal on the current fracking moratorium, the overwhelming majority of those at the New York City hearings were opposed to the drilling process. At times, Wednesday’s crowd adopted tactics familiar from the Occupy Wall Street movement, including the now-famous people’s mic.

The hearing was part of a 126 day public comment period, in which New Yorkers were invited to voice their opinion on the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s 1,537 page report on fracking. The report proposes rules and regulations for the gas industry,  should the three-year-old moratorium on fracking be lifted next year. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens was absent from the hearing, which Suffolk County Legislator Jon Cooper, who opposes fracking, did not let go unnoticed.

“I’m particularly concerned that this process, if it is to go forward, needs to have transparency about the chemicals that will be used,” said Cooper. Currently, companies are not required by law to reveal the combination of substances they use to derive natural gas.

Dozens of politicians, business leaders and residents, who had signed up in advance to speak during an allotted three-minute slot, voiced their points of view before the audience at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Within the first two hours, only one speaker, Jerry Kremer, chairman of the energy industry lobbying group New York AREA, supported fracking.

“Upstate in places like Sullivan County, there are many poor communities and people are desperate,” said Kremer, echoing the popular sentiment that fracking will be extremely lucrative for the state’s poorest towns. He added, “New York buys gas from as far away as Louisiana and even our enemy countries…We need to do it [remove the ban on fracking]. We don’t want to rely on Arab oil.”

If you continue on this path, we will take direct action, and we will shut you down!

To this, the crowd booed. Obscenities were hurled. The speaker behind Kremer tried to interrupt. The moderators chastised the crowd and said they were wasting everyone’s time. It was a brouhaha not so dissimilar from a cafeteria food fight.

State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal argued that dangerous, mysterious incidents continue to occur in other states where fracking is allowed.

“Livestock are dying and no one knows why. The air and water smell like rotten eggs,” said Rosenthal.

Actor and noted anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo signed up to speak, and said, “Why is the state and the [Department of Environmental Conservation] so gung-ho on moving forward on this regressive and unimaginative plan to frack the daylights out of New York State,” reported DNAinfo.

When Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominate anti-fracking documentary “Gasland,” stepped up to the microphone, many members of the crowd tossed up “spirit fingers,” the hand signal for approval popularized by the Occupiers. After dropping a copy of his film into a box the Department of Environmental Conservation had set up for the speakers to contribute evidence of their arguments, Fox said, “I congratulate all who came to participate in the democratic process. But the process today is a sham.”

Fox said that the Department should be asking whether or not to allow fracking, but is instead asking how we should be fracking — a point reiterated by a number of City Council members as well as members of the State Assembly and State Senate. Among them was State Sen. Tom Duane, who added that if fracking is allowed to proceed, the Department of Environmental Conservation should outline criminal penalties for gas companies that break the law.

Representatives of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, feeling the tremors from the rare New York City earthquake in August, were there to express concern over the possibility that fracking could cause small earthquakes and damage underground transit and water infrastructure. A spokesperson for Bloomberg said that placing a 1,000-foot buffer zone between fracking wells and New York City’s watershed, as the Department of Environmental Conservation recommended, was insufficient, and should be extended to at least seven miles.

After the politicians and celebrities spoke, a number of upstate residents took their turn, including Louise Johnson, who owns an egg farm in Schoharie County.

“Our aquifiers our your aquifiers. If our farmland is allowed to be fracked, it will poison your drinking water,” said Johnson.

Throughout the hearing, the crowd randomly erupted in shouts, which, each time, were subsequently chastised by the moderators. The most raucous outburst occurred when Dave Publow, a member of the Occupy Wall Street Environmentalist Solidarity Working Group and board member of United for Action, took the mic. Outside the hearing, Occupy Wall Street members had passed out copies of Publow’s speech to the crowd, which he invited the audience to read with him to the moderators.

“Mic check!” yelled a member of the audience, to which about 300 others responded by following Publow’s suggestion.

“Governor Cuomo! DEC! If you continue on this path, we will take direct action, and we will shut you down,” yelled Publow and members of the audience. Police officers rushed to calm about a dozen people who’d vacated their seats and taken to the aisles.

Immediately after the hearing was over, the Department of Environmental Conservation announced a 30 day extension of the public comment period, reported WNYC.

Although the boisterous public hearings are over, New Yorkers still have until Jan. 11, 2012 to voice their opinions on fracking electronically and through mail. After that, the Department of Environmental Conservation says it will take public opinion into account in creating a final version of its fracking assessment, due sometime next year.

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