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Experts debate pros, cons of hydrofracking in New York state

Sarah Steingraber and John Holko discuss possible environmental impacts, employment opportunities that could come from implementing drilling

In a deliberately non-confrontational format, two experts took the stage in the Anderson Center Monday night to present each side of the hydraulic fracturing debate.

On the anti-fracking side of the debate was Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and the founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. She contested the idea that fracking could ever be a safe, viable option in New York state. She raised concerns regarding the disposal of radioactive material, and the potential for it to get into the milk supply, a major concern in a dairy state like New York.

“There are many risks inherently unmanageable, and that no regulations would be able to make us feel safe,” she said. “Many of the harms created are inherent to the system, and they are unfixable.”

Steingraber noted the difficulties in disposing of fracking waste water, arguing that there were no best practices in place that would ever provide a safe means of disposal.

“There is no right way to do something that we shouldn’t be doing in the first place,” she said.

John Holko, the president of Lenape Resources, Inc. and the director of Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, spoke about the positive benefits of fracking, including bringing jobs directly related to the oil industry, to say nothing of those created to support the industry. Though he could not give any exact numbers on how many jobs would be created for New Yorkers, he noted that fracking would provide long-term growth for the unemployed.

“We can grow this industry into thousands of employees, and that is directly related to operation,” Holko said. “From land work through drilling, through pipeline through production into maintenance of compressors and pipelines.”

Steingraber, however, had a less optimistic view of the potential employment opportunities created by hydrofracking. According to Steingraber, the jobs created by fracking have much higher rates of on-the-job fatalities. She said that workers are exposed to explosive, highly flammable materials and may be prone to “grievous injuries” like crushing, burning and loss of limbs. She also talked about the dangers of being exposed to silica sand, an ingredient in fracking solution that is blasted into the shale.

“The tiny particles of silica sand are like asbestos, they are a known cause of lung cancer and silicosis, which is a disabling illness,” she said. “Workers on the job site cannot protect themselves efficiently from silica dust by wearing masks.”

For Jim Pudish, a resident of Endicott, Steingraber’s argument about the potential risks was not sufficient to convince him that fracking was a bad idea. He said that there are risks with every industry, and it shouldn’t prevent economic growth.

“You’ve made the case that we should never produce any farther in New York in terms of industry. We should either stay where we are or regress back into the Dark Ages,” Pudish said.

Steingraber also spoke about the environmental impacts of fracking. According to Steingraber, the excess methane produced by fracking that is not burnt off contributes an enormous amount of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, severely impacting climate change.

Holko said the methane problem is not as severe as opponents of fracking make it out to be. He said everyday processes, like agriculture and the development of biofuels, produce far more methane than fracking. He also said that the gas industry is the best equipped to deal with any excess methane because it has the technology in place to capture the methane and then sell it, bringing even more revenue into the state.

“We have an industry that focuses on the capture of methane … the industry that best handles methane is ours, which captures it, develops and sells it,” Holko said. “You want the technology and advancement coming out of the industry that knows how to handle it.”

Professor of environmental studies Richard Andrus said that he thought there was not enough emphasis on the environmental aspect of the debate, especially the issue of climate change.

“That’s incredibly serious, and the gas company is completely ignoring it and buying into climate change denial. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s methane leaking or not; if they take the methane out of the ground and burn it, it is still adding to the climate problem,” Andrus said.

According to Steingraber, burning natural gas is not the way to solve issues of climate change.

“It is our generation now that needs to make this leap into renewable energy,” she said. “The fate of the entire planet and our children’s lives depend on it.”

This argument resonanted with Aviv Kleinman, a junior majoring in geography.

“I support the ban on Hydraulic Fracking much more than I did before I walked into the debate,” Kleinman wrote in an email. “It seemed as though President Holko had nothing but meandering excuses for why it is good for the residents of this state to welcome such a dangerous and disastrous industry that desires to only destroy the lives of thousands of New York State residents, whereas Dr. Steingraber only had fore-thinking ways of helping the future of the Earth.”

The debate, held by You Defend It, a local nonprofit that organizes political debates, was unique in that each debater was asked separate questions. They were not allowed to reference their opponent’s argument and could only make a case for their own position.