How some upstate environmentalists came to embrace fracking

On property that is a potential fracking site. (Sarah Laskow)
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ITHACA—Sitting on the porch of the ecolodge he's building, Bob Lyon pointed up the hill in front of us.

"That's where the company drilled the well," he said. "We sat here for a months with the tower blinking and the compressor hissing, all summer long."

Lyon's ecolodge is going up in New York's Southern Tier, on top of one of the thickest, most potentially lucrative sections of the Marcellus Shale, which is possibly the single largest source of newly accessible natural gas in the country.

His family owns almost 300 undeveloped acres in Tioga County—a private nature preserve. Every morning, he sees a bald eagle fishing in one of his ponds, with her two eaglets. Twice a week, two pairs of mating bob cats pass through.

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The gas company that drilled the well on top of Lyon's hill wanted to start fracking—extracting natural gas using a controversial drilling technique without which the gas would be unreachable—until the New York Department of Environmental Conservation put a moratorium on the practice.

With the ban in place, the company capped the well and retreated. From the porch, there's no evidence the industry was there at all.

Since then, Lyon's been released from the original gas lease on the land. But if the gas company were to come back, to open the possibility of a new lease, he would sign it.

Under New York law a company could harvest the gas underneath his property, anyway, from a well drilled elsewhere, paying him royalties for the bounty extracted. But Lyon, 50, a dentist, a philanthropist, the owner of a small construction company whose family has lived in this area as long as any white people have, would also sign the lease because he's all for natural gas drilling.

Lyon considers himself an environmentalist. He moved out here to the country full-time because he wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. He has an agreement with the state that keeps him from mowing his lawns in mid-July so that fawns and the chicks of wild turkeys have safe places to nestle into the tall grass. He cares deeply about the quality of the water on this piece of land: He's seen pintails, blue- and green-winged teals, hooded mergansers, common mergansers, and once, three weeks last sweltering summer, a great white heron who had no business being this far north.

"They wouldn't be here unless the water was crystal-clear perfect," Lyon said.

He knows there are risks to fracking, and that accidents have happened in other states, and that the gas industry, like any industry, has a financial incentive to take shortcuts.

"If anyone stands to lose a gigantic amount, it would be me and my wife," he said. "We invested our life savings in this property."

But he sees benefits to drilling, too, including the relative environmental benefit of a fuel source that produces less carbon pollution than other fossil fuels. He thinks the gas industry has had enough time and made enough mistakes that it can operate with a measure of common sense now. He's pleased that the state's Department of Environmental Conservation took the time to look closely at fracking and at the best way to regulate the industry. Now he thinks it's time for them to get out of the way.

FRACKING’S SUPPORTERS HAVE ALWAYS MADE for a strange coalition.

Three years ago, big environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace were arguing for natural gas development without any of the caveats they bring up today. Opposition came primarily from small grassroots organizations that were at least as concerned with local environmental impacts as with the global-scale carbon impact on which national groups were focused.

Many of the locally focused grassroots opponents want to ban fracking altogether, and in response, the national environmental groups have grown more cautious in their support of natural gas. The tentative, unusual alliance between environmentalists and the natural gas industry has fallen apart, and the debate in Washington has reverted to more typical form, with Republicans arguing that government regulation is stifling business opportunity and Democrats arguing that government-imposed restrictions are the only thing stopping the profit-hungry industry from doing irreparable damage to the environment.

It's still possible to find people in the environmental movement who think fracking for natural gas should go forward, with the right regulations. It’s also possible to find Democratic politicians, including President Obama, who agree with them.

If there is such a thing as safe fracking, New York arguably has the best chance of any state of pulling it off. Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration has proceeded more slowly than other state governments with such a large and potentially productive sections of shale within their jurisdictions. This summer, the administration floated the idea, via a front-page article in The New York Times, of opening up five counties in the Southern Tier for fracking, if local governments approve the drilling. A real fracking plan will reportedly be out by Labor Day.)

I met Bob Lyon because I went looking for people in the Southern Tier who actually believed in what Obama and Cuomo seem to be promising. I wasn't sure these people even existed: the position that Obama and other politicians have staked out feels like a mushy political ground between the greener Democrats worried about unforeseeable environmental consequences of fracking and anti-regulation Republicans who think Americans deserve quick access to any fossil fuels found in the ground.

But I found at least a handful of people living in the five counties where fracking could go forward—an organic dairy farmer, a retired international businessman, a family that gets its electricity from solar panels— who cared deeply about the fate of their land, water and air, who didn't trust the gas industry to protect those resources, and who thought that New York should let fracking go ahead.

These people aren't necessarily representative of views in the area. All of them identified as environmentalists. All of them owned land and stood to benefit financially from gas leases, although all of them said money wasn't a motivating factor for them. All of them belonged or had belonged to landowners' coalitions, some of which are friendlier with the gas industry than others. There are plenty of people in the Southern Tier who don't share their perspective—drilling opponents convinced that fracking will ruin the place they've built their homes and drilling supporters who aren't particularly concerned about the environment.

One way of looking at the politicians and people who think safe fracking is possible: They're caught up in the Great American Fantasy—my lawyer's better than your lawyer. Write the right regulations or draw up a stronger lease and any potential issues will disappear (or result in substantial financial remuneration).

But the pro-drilling environmentalists I talked to were thoughtful about the risk of fracking and also mindful of the rewards. Some of them thought it was important for the state to closely monitor and regulate fracking. Others thought the best protection against environmental risk was a strong lease with protections built in. All of them also acknowledged that the process isn't perfect, that accidents happen, that they're betting a valued asset—their land—on their conviction that fracking can be done right.

ONE THING ABOUT THESE PEOPLE: THEY are decidedly not impressed by that flammable-tap-water thing, made famous by the anti-fracking documentary Gasland. In the Southern Tier, the tap water's been flammable for years, well before anyone ever heard about fracking. Setting your faucet aflame is a parlor trick, they say—a gimmick to impress newcomers.

"People have blown it out of proportion," said Christy Everitt. "There was methane in the water before."

Everitt, 50, lives outside of Vestal, New York, in Broome County. Her husband grew up here, and she grew up just across the border, in Pennsylvania. They bought this property in 1995, and they plan on living here for the rest of their lives.

They built their house on top of a hill, facing south to suck up passive solar energy, and down below three substantial solar panels tilt toward the sky. They grow vegetables in a small garden, compost their food scraps, and are raising chickens. When it's hot out, they don't depend on air conditioning: They retreat to the cooler basement or, as on the day I came by, sit outside on a bench beneath a tree, where a breeze often floats by.

This land had been available for a while when Everitt and her husband had the chance to purchase it. There was already a power line on the property and a gas pipeline, features that aren't exactly popular with potential landowners. But to her mind, those are the things required to live with billions of people on the planet.

"Do I really want it in my backyard? Not really," she said. "But I don't want to use it and have no responsibility for it coming into my hands."

That's one reason she supports drilling. People like solar, but they don't really know what's involved, she said—how many big, unsightly panels it takes to create enough electricity to power even one house. They fight wind turbines, too, just because they're ugly.

"Most of the people who oppose gas, they don't have their facts quite straight," she said. "I don't want anything to happen to this community or to my property."