The Common Council puts the kibosh on hydrofracking in Syracuse
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
It isn’t illegal to hunt whales with a harpoon gun in the city of Syracuse, but it could be. The whale population worldwide is endangered, and statutes to preserve the existing herd against the world’s thirst for whale oil and blubber are certainly welcome.
Except that you and I both know that there are no whales in Syracuse, and, while I can’t say I’ve counted them, very few harpoon guns.
There isn’t any hydrofracking going on in the city either, yet that did not stop the Common Council from passing legislation last week prohibiting the practice of drilling deep below the cityscape and blasting the shale formation to release natural gas. Environmentalists cheered the legislation, championed by Councilor-at-Large Kathleen Joy, as an important victory for the anti-fracking cause, and Joy herself announced that the council had “sent a message” to Albany, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation are scratching their heads and figuring out what to do about the cloud of gas sitting beneath our feet. (The odds are that they will approve some drilling permits early next year, although not in the Skaneateles or New York City watersheds).
No one is going to drill into the Marcellus shale anywhere in the city of Syracuse, mostly because the shale is so close to the surface that it will yield very little gas. The Utica shale, at a much greater depth, may become a viable energy source sometime down the road, and that’s what has Joy and others concerned. Still, it’s hard to imagine that a gas company would find it cheaper to set up operations on Otisco Street rather than in, let’s say, the town of Otisco, where land can be leased for a fraction of the price.
“This is a proactive approach that the city is taking,” Joy told the Syracuse New Times last week. “We wanted to do it now while the state is considering leases, before the gas industry was invested in the city. We looked at the environmental impact as well as the quality-of-life impact that hydrofracking would have on the city. We felt it was time to articulate our concerns for our citizens, our environment and our heritage.”
Joy’s law bans hydrofracking within the city limits and on any city-owned lands. It also forbids the storage of any fracking fluids within the city. It doesn’t address the issue of transporting frack fluids (either the chemicals that go down into the earth or the watery, chemicalladen, and potentially radioactive residue that comes back up), because, as she points out, most of those trucks would be rumbling by on I-690 or I-81, and the rules governing the use of interstate highways are made by the feds.
“Hydrofracking is a high-impact heavy industry, and it’s not compatible with our efforts to be a sustainable city,” says Joy, who is on the ballot next week for a sec ond four-year term. “Here we have green infrastructure projects, we have the newly opened creekwalk, we’re finally making progress cleaning up the most polluted lake in the world. The risk is too great. We don’t want to be moving backward.”
I asked Joy if this isn’t another NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) statement by people who want to enjoy the benefits of cheap and readily available energy without all the ugly mess. After all, unless our society as a whole finds a way to reduce our energy use, we are going to be using fossil fuels into the foreseeable future. Renewable energy sources, by all accounts, won’t meet a significant share of demand for decades. Until they do, the choices are hydrofracking here, blowing up mountains in Appalachia for coal, drilling offshore for oil, or depending on Middle East reserves. Not a savory menu.
Joy argues that the city is working hard to conserve energy and to reduce our use of fossil fuels. “We were one of the first in the state to make sure that all new city buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Our school buildings have to have a green component. We have a city Department of Sustainability. Our transportation planner is working on additional bike paths. I’ve talked to our housing authority about using vacant lots for solar power. We need to push forward toward a sustainable, walkable city.
We just have to be a little louder.”
So we have now joined Albany and Buffalo as upstate cities who have said a symbolic “no” to urban fracking. Now if we can only find a way to say no to the gluttonous energy use that makes fracking profitable to begin with. That would be a statement.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times.