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Fracking battle lines have a western front

Buffalo fracking protest
Daniel Robison
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WNED
Homemade signs, bullhorns and elaborate costumes were the props preferred by the anti-fracking protesters outside of National Fuel's headquarters in Buffalo.

After years of study and discussion, the future of hydrofracking in the Southern Tier's Marcellus Shale is still in limbo.

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wned/local-wned-94010.mp3

Over the weekend Governor David Paterson signed an executive order, putting a moratorium on controversial hydrofracking until July. But the front lines in the debate about fracking seem to be moving west.

Last week, about three dozen or so anti-fracking protesters, including a sign-toting Santa Claus and someone dressed up as a tree, marched outside of National Fuel’s headquarters in downtown Buffalo. Security guards inside energy company’s building watched – and filmed – from the second floor.

David Harter of Buffalo says his city, although far from potential fracking sites, will be negatively affected if drilling begins in New York.

“We’re in a position in Buffalo to fight it. We have a community of people that are willing to stand up and that are going to stand up. It’s going to affect everyone everywhere if the water is contaminated,” Harter said.

Most of the hullabaloo over fracking is about the potential risk to water quality.  Crews drill thousands of feet vertically and horizontally, shoot millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals down the hole, forming cracks in the Marcellus shale, which releases natural gas. Other states allow it, New York does not – but could – pending a study by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Either way, there’s billions of dollars at stake.

“In Marcellus shale the promise of jobs coming out of the opening of resources is pretty substantial,” said Craig Turner, vice president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

The Chamber of Commerce-like organization inserted fracking into its regional agenda for the first time this year, which acts as a radar screen of sorts for those in the business of economic development. Turner says Pennsylvania seen the creation of thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue thanks to fracking.

But the industry enjoys light regulation currently, and anecdotal evidence suggests the practice potentially poses many environmental and lifestyle issues.

“That’s not to diminish the questions of the environmental community. But the EPA has okayed it and Pennsylvania making good on the opportunity,” Turner said.

Turner says some see the natural gas boom leaving the harbor without New York on board because of the current hold on fracking. But Martin Casstevens says that may not be the case. He’s with Directed Energy, a UB energy think tank.

“The Marcellus isn’t the end of this. There’s shale deposits all over the world. And if we can develop expertise here in New York state as a result of working on the Marcellus around the globe,” Casstevens said. “If we decide as a state to not pursue it at this point, the gas isn’t going away. In fact, it might be worth more in the long run.”

Buffalo-based Norse Energy is making that exact bet. The international company recently relocated its international headquarters to the city.

CEO Dennis Holbrook says his well-paid staff of 50 could easily double if that happens.

“A lot of the design work, a lot of the planning, a lot of the overall corporate direction is coming out of the Buffalo office," Holbrook said.

While most of the attention is on the Marcellus shale downstate, fracking one day may actually arrive locally. Buffalo and much of western New York sits on the Utica Shale formation. Exploration of that formation is still years off. Whether or not that happens will depend on what drilling regulation look like when the governor’s moratorium is lifted. 

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.