Thoughts About President Obama, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Pete Seeger

Dear Governor Cuomo,

I want to thank you for your decision regarding the fracking ban and encourage you to become a unique and much needed leader for renewable energy and against fossil fuels by opposing and stopping as much fracking infrastructure buildout in New York as you can. Below are some thoughts I wrote regarding you and the president. I am sending them to each of you as well as to Pete Seeger’s daughter, Tinya. I sincerely mean the comments I wrote at the very end, which state that I am pulling for you and the president to come through regarding these most important issues.

Thank you,
Bill Kitchen

President Obama, Governor Cuomo and Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger spent his whole long life speaking and singing truth to power. He told Governor Cuomo that, while his father, Mario, would be remembered as one of New York’s best governors, if he, Andrew, allowed fracking in New York he would be remembered as one of the worst.

When the New York fracking ban was announced in December, the only person who cemented his place in history was acting Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker. He said that studies showed harmful health effects due to fracking and he would not allow his family to drink tap water in an area where fracking occurred. Therefore he couldn’t support fracking in New York.

Andrew Cuomo’s place in history regarding this issue remains to be seen. Dr. Zucker told him all that he needs to know as he moves forward in his decision making process. If fracking isn’t safe in New York then it certainly isn’t safe anywhere else, where regulations are likely to be less stringent than they would have been here.

The oil and gas industry is in the midst of a massive infrastructure build-out across the country, the continent, indeed the entire planet. Much of that build-out will occur in New York, if allowed. Governor Cuomo and DEC have the ability to weigh in on all of that infrastructure and they can stop much of it from getting built.

If the governor allows fracking infrastructure to be built in New York, then history will say he, and all of us New Yorkers by extension, are hypocritical, selfish NIMBYs. We don’t think fracking is safe for us but we will allow this huge infrastructure build-out that guarantees more fracking for our out-of-state neighbors. Simply applying the golden rule would lead the governor to say no to all of this infrastructure. Beyond that, people across the state are rising up and saying they don’t want these pipelines, compressor stations, storage facilities and LNG terminals within the state because of the very real and serious problems and health risks that come with them.

Pete Seeger spent the last half of his life working to clean up the Hudson River. Contrast that with what a Houston based company, Crestwood, wants to do at Seneca Lake, the Queen of the Finger Lakes. Crestwood’s plans call for storing propane, butane and natural gas in abandoned, unlined salt caverns under and next to the lake. Seneca Lake not only serves as the drinking water source for 100,000 people, but is also home to the region’s $4.8 billion a year world-class wine industry.

What could possibly go wrong? Perhaps something similar to Crestwood’s million gallon toxic wastewater spill last July in North Dakota. Some of that water entered Lake Sakakawea, which is the drinking water source for the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Or perhaps a train derailment, which Crestwood is also very familiar with. More Bakken oil trains are loaded by Crestwood than by any other company. These so called bomb trains are the ones showing up all too often on the evening news after they’ve derailed and exploded. Much of the gas that Crestwood wants to store at Seneca Lake will arrive by rail over a spindly 80 year old trestle that spans the Watkins Glen Gorge, one the state’s Top 10 tourist destinations.

If the governor allows this kind of fracking infrastructure to be built within the state, the consequences could be just as dire as if he had allowed fracking itself.

On the other hand, with all due respect to Mario, if Andrew says no to fossil fuel infrastructure and instead becomes a real champion of renewable energy, he will be remembered as a much more significant figure than his father or any other politician of our time ever was. He will have stepped into a space that is currently unoccupied. He will have demonstrated the kind of bold leadership that is desperately needed in New York and far beyond. Absent that strong stand against infrastructure, the fracking ban is largely meaningless, a joke, a selfish and divisive act with no moral foundation.

What the gas industry most wants from New York is not a green light for fracking but help in getting the infrastructure built. They want to get the gas to the coast so they can sell it on the world market at a much higher price. Once the infrastructure exists they can really ramp up production in neighboring states. It will also be much easier then to try and change the governor’s, or some future governor’s, mind about drilling within the state.

So many of us were full of hope when President Obama came into office in 2009. Among the hopeful was Pete Seeger, who performed for the President and his family during the inaugural events. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, Pete and Bruce Springsteen led everyone in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”.

Pete sang that same song in his last big public performance in September 2013 when he traveled to Saratoga to be part of the Farm Aid concert. He was 94 at the time. The only reason he made the effort to drag his tall ailing frame so far from home was to sing what may have been the last verse he ever wrote. It ended with “New York Was Meant To Be Frack-Free.”

If Pete had a chance to sing for the President again, no doubt he would once again sing Woody’s song. He would modify the fracking verse so it wasn’t specific to New York, but you can bet he wouldn’t leave it out. As Bruce says, “Pete insisted on singing all of the verses all of the time,” and for the President the fracking verse surely would have been sung.

A seventh grader recently asked the President what he would do differently if he got a do-over. He said he would have closed Guantanamo on the very first day. Good answer. But how much better if he had said there was another do-over he would have wished for as well. A wish that he had said on day one what he said deep into his seventh State of the Union address — “No challenge- no challenge (his emphasis)- poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” That he wished he had used the bully pulpit to hammer home that message for all these years. Critical years for seriously addressing the problem. He would have had science backing him up the whole time and Mother Nature regularly hitting us over the head with a 2×4 as she tried to reinforce the warning of what’s to come. He could have been the kind of transformational president he talked about back in 2008 by leading us and the world to a renewable energy future. He could have set a high bar and a timeline as JFK did about going to the moon. He could have said we aren’t going to do it because it will be easy, we’re going to do it because it is essential. Essential for all life on the planet, most especially our children and grandchildren.

If only. Instead of building towards a safe future based on a renewable energy economy, the President chose to rebuild the same old tired destructive fossil fuel economy. As the fracking lady on TV constantly brags about, the USA is number one in gas production and will soon be number one in oil as well. Five years after the disaster in the Gulf the President is moving forward with drilling in the Atlantic off the southeast coast as well as in Alaska. Halliburton pleads guilty to destroying evidence related to the Gulf spill and the President golfs with one of its board members. Every time one of the bomb trains from the Bakken explodes, we see his all-of-the-above energy policy go up in flames. Make no mistake, Obama is the fracking president. That will be a large part of his legacy. Maybe he should consider Williston North Dakota as the site for his presidential library. There has been a ten fold increase in oil production in that state on Obama’s watch, up to over a million barrels a day.

Teddy Roosevelt didn’t go to Martha’s Vineyard or Hawaii for his vacations. He went to North Dakota to clear his mind. A national park there bears his name. Up until fairly recently he probably would have enjoyed going back. Now oil rigs can be seen from the park. Spills happen regularly. The FBI had to open an office to deal with all the crime and corruption. Truck traffic and man-camps overwhelm towns and cities. Conservative Republican politicians, who once welcomed the industry, are now saying they made a mistake. If Teddy could see it now, what would he think?

The President often talks about climate change denial. He mocks the deniers when he says we don’t have time for another meeting of the flat earth society. But he should know that another sort of denial is working its way into the lexicon. Fracking damage denial. And when it comes to fracking damage deniers, Obama is Denier-in-Chief.

Any hope that fracking was the cure for climate change has long since passed. We now know that methane (natural gas) is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). This is especially true over the short term (the next few decades) which is when the scientific community tells us we must act to avoid reaching unstoppable tipping points.

At a time when water, especially clean drinking water, is becoming increasingly scarce around the planet, fracking uses vast amounts of water and makes all of it forever unusable for human or animal consumption. And fracking often contaminates nearby water sources that aren’t part of the fracking process.

Not only is fracking a bridge to nowhere, it is worse than that. It’s a roadblock, perhaps the biggest roadblock, to getting us to where we need to go, which is a future built on renewable energy.

No one advertises more than the fracking industry. Like a modern day Marlboro Man (four of whom died of smoking related diseases) the fracking lady walks across our TV screens every five minutes or so and tries to sell us a product that, in the long run, guarantees our demise. Maybe she doesn’t have kids. It’s interesting that they picked a woman to sell their product. The number of women who sit in the corporate offices in Houston is probably similar to the number that populate the man-camps of North Dakota.

In the commercial she mentions a new century of oil and gas, which sounds like a pretty long bridge. She says we’re the new energy superpower. Not solar and wind, mind you. No, she says we’re an oil and gas superpower and she describes these fossil fuels as red, white and blue. She’s right about that.

We live in a small interconnected world. People everywhere know more than ever. They know about climate change and they feel its effects. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013 the US sent in a lot of aid. People there were probably so devastated they didn’t think about the aid or where it came from. But they understand climate change and the whole world knows that most of the carbon dioxide causing climate change is red, white and blue. And they’ll know that most of the methane in the atmosphere due to fracking is also red, white and blue.

Hillary Clinton is all for fracking. As Secretary of State she helped American companies expand fracking in other countries. As poorly as fracking is regulated here, you can imagine how much worse it will be in poorer, less democratic countries. There is a sizable and growing number of people in this country who hate the fracking companies, the infrastructure and the government officials who allow it. The same hatred will spread around the world for American companies and for America itself as fracking expands. If we want to make friends we’ll export solar and wind technology and assistance, not oil and gas, coal and tar sands.

If we’re the exceptional country our politicians like to talk about, shouldn’t we be able to do that?

This spring the White House will host a climate change and public health summit featuring the Surgeon General. Hopefully Dr. Murthy will say that the first and most important thing we need to do is transition away from fossil fuels as soon as possible. When Michelle was concerned about her husband’s health she didn’t ask about what steps he could take to stay healthy while he continued to smoke. No, she knew the first thing he had to do obviously was quit smoking. Everything else followed from that. Likewise, we should be doing all we can to minimize climate change instead of talking about dealing with its health impacts while we’re still puffing away.

One of the First Lady’s messages that went beyond her family to the entire country was to eat better. More fruits and vegetables. She planted a garden at the White House and put a lot of effort into spreading the word. FracTracker Alliance reports that 11% of all organic farms are currently endangered by their proximity to expanding fracking sites. Unless we change course that number is expected to grow to 31 percent.

Last fall, over 400,000 people traveled to NYC to say let’s get moving regarding climate change. Most of them were young or they were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They didn’t come for a concert or a rally or to hear speeches. They only came to march and deliver a message to act. They represent a lot of energy and a lot of commitment. What other issue has drawn a crowd like that? Everyone of them is against fracking and for renewable energy. They represent the kind of energy that carried Barack Obama into office. I was one of them. In 2012, when pundits said the election could hinge on Ohio, I went to Cleveland to volunteer during the last week of the campaign. It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I had been to Staten Island with a busload of upstate college students to help with the cleanup. I told a crowd in Cleveland about the devastated families I had met in Staten Island. I said I was in Ohio because, while Obama had a lot of work to do to get serious about climate change, Romney’s position could be summed up in one word – denial.

Most of us that marched in NYC are deeply disappointed in the President. We’re anxious for a real climate leader in the White House. Short of some major sea change, we know that leadership won’t come from Hillary Clinton. We’re tired of voting for the lesser of two evils. We’ll continue to work in the trenches where we live. If change doesn’t come from Washington then the next time we have a big gathering it may look more like Cairo or Hong Kong or Kiev. Time is short. Too much is at stake. Maybe we need a little drama, Obama.

There’s a lot about the President, and his family certainly, to like. But, if his presidency ended today it is, almost by definition, a failure. To have been president for two terms at this point in history and to have done so little to seriously address what he himself says is our biggest threat, while promoting fracking worldwide, is to have given history good reason to be critical.

The good news is there is still time, although not much, for Obama to make a big difference. It will require admitting mistakes and changing direction. Is he up to that?

LBJ had many accomplishments as president. They are largely overshadowed by his one big mistake, Vietnam. He knew it was a mistake but he doubled down with disasterous consequences. When Pete Seeger was asked to sing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 he chose to sing Big Muddy. The song was considered symbolic of the Vietnam War and LBJ’s policy of escalation. One of the lines was “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy But the Big Fool Said to Push On”. CBS censored the song but later relented at the Smothers Brothers insistence.

Fracking, like the Vietnam War, was a mistake from the get-go. No tickering or regulating will ever make it right. Like all extreme energy – mountaintop removal, deep sea drilling, drilling in the Arctic, tar sands – fracking is inherently insane. One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand this. All it really takes is using some common sense. I trust that the President has some of that and that Michelle and the girls do as well. Maybe he should dismiss all his advisors and go up to the second floor for a family discussion. I trust that the four of them can figure out what’s right.

If Pete was still here to sing a song for the President when he leaves office in less than 20 months, I sure hope he wouldn’t feel compelled to sing the Big Muddy.

I’m pulling for you Andrew and Barack.

Happy Birthday Pete (May 3).