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Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a technique for recovering oil and natural gas from shale rock formations once too costly to develop. The use of fracking is sweeping the nation, resulting in a surge in production that has made the U.S. the single-largest producer of both oil and natural gas in the world, a feat that was unthinkable just a decade ago.
More than 34 states are directly participating in what has been christened the Shale Revolution, including traditionally liberal, eco-friendly states such as California and Illinois. Fracking has helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country. Both Republicans and Democrats – including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who holds a master’s degree in geology – advocate the well-regulated, environmentally responsible development of these natural resources.
Unfortunately, one of the states with the greatest reserves of natural gas refuses to allow the process. New York, with abundant supplies of natural gas locked in shale formations thousands of feet underground, imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2008.
New York’s policy on hydraulic fracturing is especially curious considering oil and natural gas development have been part of the state’s economy for nearly 200 years. New York is currently home to nearly 13,000 conventional oil and natural gas wells (wells that are not horizontally drilled and hydraulically fractured) and U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data show New York produced more natural gas than Illinois, South Dakota, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Oregon in 2012.
Conventional wells come with the same, manageable risks as hydraulically fractured wells, but only fractured wells have been put on hold. Why?
An obvious answer is that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, potentially worried about reelection in the fall, refuses to make a decision whether to allow fracking to proceed in the state. A recent Philanthropy magazine exposé titled “Gas Heat” offers another possible explanation, describing how a small but politically motivated group called the Park Foundation has worked to advance the anti-fracking movement in the Empire State.
The Park Foundation was once dedicated to conservation and responsible resource development, but after the death of founder Roy Parker, the organization took a dramatic turn to the left. Under new leadership, the foundation has spent millions of dollars working to make New York’s fracking ban permanent. That has resulted in what the article called an “interlocking triangle of sympathetic scientists, anti-fracking nonprofits, and media outlets.”
This interlocking triangle became a positive feedback loop of deception. The foundation awarded multiple grants worth tens of thousands of dollars to scientists, including Robert Howarth, who produced research critical of hydraulic fracturing. That research was used as the basis for reports by the nonprofit organizations and media outlets funded by the Park Foundation, enabling these studies to garner more media attention than they deserved. Scientists from across the ideological spectrum rejected the politically motivated, Park-funded research, but not before the results of that research were widely published in New York publications, helping to cement anti-fracking sentiments in the state.
These studies worked wonders at deceiving the public on the risks of fracking. But perhaps the most effective anti-fracking campaign funded by the Park Foundation was the quarter-of-a-million dollars spent promoting the movie Gasland, a documentary by New York filmmaker Josh Fox, and its sequels. Although Gasland has been widely discredited, the documentary has been effective as propaganda, with its images of flaming tap water serving to embolden environmental activists determined to ban the practice in New York for good.
One organization cannot singlehandedly determine public opinion in a state as large and politically diverse as New York. But there is little question the Park Foundation has played a significant role in providing cover for indecisive politicians, affording them the luxury of keeping the current moratorium in place until after they win their jobs for another four years.
While the governor of New York delays a critical decision because he’s concerned about keeping his job, the people in economically depressed areas of western New York are waiting for the moratorium to be lifted, in hopes of having an opportunity to get jobs of their own.