I went for a run last week and my route took me out of Tompkins County and into Tioga County in the Eastern Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. The land here is beautiful. It is a mix of flatlands and forested hills that pop up 800 or 1000 feet above the lowlands. The hills are covered in trees—many of the trees where I was running (in the Caroline Hills) were planted by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.
Aside from the natural beauty, I noticed two other things as I ran. One was the obvious disparity in wealth represented by some of the properties along my path. Close by the road there were trailers with peeling paint and junk cars scattered through the yards. The word “Appalachia” came to mind right away. The other was all of the signs in favor of or opposed to fracking. The Marcellus Shale runs under this area and contains a lot of natural gas. The method used to force this gas out of the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Fracking has become quite contentious in this area, (as in many others), due to uncertainty about its long term environmental impacts, including its effects on air quality, water quality, and climate change. Towns, counties, and states are working through the tough process of coming to some agreement about the regulations they will adopt regarding fracking. Drilling companies are having their say, as are environmental groups and landowners. In some places it is getting nasty, with neighbor against neighbor. On my run the way this played out was dueling lawn signs.
When I paid close attention I noticed a strong correlation between the state of the house and the position on fracking. The worse off the house and property looked, the more likely the sign on the yard would be in favor of fracking. The fracking debate reminded me of other places I have lived and other discussions about natural resources.
Years ago I spent a summer in Heart Butte, Montana on the Blackfeet reservation. The hamlet sits at an altitude of 4,500 feet above sea level, exactly where the Great Plains become the Rocky Mountains. It is a pretty spectacular setting, with Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness close by. Heart Butte is small and poor. In the 2000 census the government counted 698 people living in Heart Butte, 45% of whom lived below the poverty line and 93% of whom were Native Americans—mostly from the Blackfeet tribe.
The reservation itself comprises 3000 square miles east of Glacier National Park. This makes it larger than Delaware but smaller than Connecticut. In the 1800s the reservation was more than twice its current size, but US Government actions and policies shrunk it to its modern-day boundaries while handing land to non-Indians. Today there are around 10,000 people living on the reservation, with an estimated 69% unemployment rate and widespread poverty. Deep below the Blackfeet Reservation sits large deposits of natural gas trapped in shale. Members of the Blackfeet tribe are in sharp disagreement about whether to tap this resource to bring jobs and development to the reservation.
I have also lived on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the Southeastern corner of Montana. The land there is very different from the land in the Finger Lakes and the land near Glacier National Park. Southeastern Montana is far dryer and less forested than either Glacier or Upstate New York. There are exposed red rock buttes and scrublands as far as the eye can see. And under all of this 700 square miles of stark beauty lies an estimated 23 billion tons of coal. The Cheyenne tribal members have not yet allowed any coal mining on the reservation, but some members want that to change. Some mining companies want that to change, as well.
Now that I live in Tompkins County, I am going to have to come to a position of my own on fracking. I do not own a few hundred acres of land here, so I am never going to be offered a lease for fracking on my land. But I can absolutely understand the attraction for landowners. Especially those who have no money and limited prospects. A ban on fracking might feel like the one thing of value I own has been taken from me. Just like a Blackfeet or Cheyenne tribal member might feel like tribal reluctance to tap into the natural resources available to them is equivalent to economic suicide.
It struck me while I was running that it is a luxury to be able to think about the long-term health of the environment. Not everyone has that luxury. Some people are hungry. Some people worry about their ability to provide for their children. Some people just want some economic security, and fracking or mining look like viable ways to get there. To these people it is strictly an economic issue.
To the many people who do not stand to benefit directly from resource extraction, it is an environmental issue. It is about poisoned water, truck traffic, clear cuts, sludge ponds, and pollution. It became clear to me on that run that fracking is one issue where the opposing sides are not even speaking the same language. The only way to get to some sort of détente on the issue is to have the appropriate state agency, in this case the Department of environmental Conservation, complete a review of hydraulic fracturing and then write regulations for how to go ahead with the permitting process. No amount of talking is going to change anyone’s opinion at this point.
It is a messy business, but the only solution is already clear on an issue like this where two entrenched sides can’t even agree on what the issue is about and talk past each other in lawn signs. There has to be a compromise and neither side will like the final result. The cost of banning all fracking is continued poverty for many rural landowners and continued reliance on foreign sources of energy. The cost of allowing fracking to happen anywhere is severe environmental degradation. What we need is a process in place that will allow drilling to happen in the most productive way possible while still protecting the air, water, and land of the Finger Lakes. It won’t be pretty, but it does have to happen.