Debate on Fracking: Was Syracuse Right to Ban the Controversial Natural Gas Drilling Process?

Amy Goodman: We are broadcasting from Syracuse, which recently became the third city in New York state to ban the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The Syracuse Common Council voted unanimously last week to ban hydrofracking within city limits. They also voted to limit where fracking wastewater can be stored. Albany and Buffalo have already banned fracking.

Fracking is controversial because it injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth in order to break up shale rock and release natural gas. Earlier this year, scientists at Cornell University argued shale gas, touted as cleaner alternative to coal, could actually be a worse contributor to climate change because of methane that leaks into the air during fracking. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also launched a probe into whether fracking is contaminating drinking-water supplies. Supporters of fracking say it’s led to an exponential increase in gas production and has not been harmful to either the environment or human health.

To find out more about the issue of fracking, we’re joined by three people. Kathleen Joy is Syracuse Common Council majority leader. She led the city’s efforts to ban fracking. We’re also joined by Don Siegel, a professor of earth sciences here at Syracuse University. And we’re joined by Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper with the Council of Chiefs of the Onondaga Nation, who also helped establish the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in 1982.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Common Council Member Joy. Explain what exactly happened last week.

Kathleen Joy: Well, we unanimously voted to ban hydrofracking in the city of Syracuse. The Common Council, with the support of the mayor, wanted to be proactive and ban hydrofracking and the storage of the fracking fluids before there were investments in the city. We don’t believe that there are any leases now, but we wanted to send that message very clearly that this is a city of Syracuse where the hydrofracking and the storage of the waste would not be accepted.

Amy Goodman: And talk about the forces on both sides, how you passed this. How large is the Syracuse Common Council? It’s a city council.

Kathleen Joy: It’s a city council. There’s about 140 residents in the city. There are nine members of the Common Council. Again, the vote was unanimous, very little opposition, if any—none from the Common Councilors. And again, we wanted to be proactive. We wanted to—we drafted up the ordinance and passed that last week, had two meetings. Many, many individuals spoke in favor of the steps that we were taking. There was a bit of opposition. But overall, we wanted to take steps to protect our citizens, our environment and our heritage.

Amy Goodman: Professor Siegel, you teach earth sciences here at Syracuse University.

Don Siegel: Yes.

Amy Goodman: You support fracking, hydrofracking. Why do you think it isn’t harmful?

Don Siegel: Well, I don’t support hydrofracking. I support sound science. And I think there’s a difference between the two. I understand the concerns that many people have over the process. I think that the opponents to it have exaggerated the potential harm, very successfully, through using media and social media and so forth. From my understanding of the process, and every independent group of water scientists I know who have looked at it, have come to the conclusion that, although there will be an occasional case of human error, that, by and large, it is a very safe process. And just last week, there was a report published out of Penn State where a fairly extensive array of samples were taken of homeowners’ wells, which came to the conclusion they saw no difference in places where they had had hydrofracking for some period of time.

Amy Goodman: Oren Lyons, you are the Faithkeeper with the Onondaga Nation. Why are you concerned about this issue of fracking?

Chief Oren Lyons: For us, it’s the long-term vision on water, and the fact that the northeast of America has over a quarter of the world’s potable water, and the responsibility that goes with that kind of a resource, a life-giving resource, is—and safeguarding that, I think, is fundamental to future life. And we take a long-term view. You know, we hear again and again the responsibility of seven generations we have. We literally think in that direction. And in order to safeguard those generations coming, you’re going to have to defend it right now. So, it’s not a very complicated decision on our part. We see it as commonsense to protect what you have and not take chances.

Amy Goodman: Majority Leader Kathleen Joy, Professor Siegel says the studies are saying water isn’t getting contaminated.

Kathleen Joy: Well, he also mentioned human error, and I think the risks are too great for contamination to allow that in the city of Syracuse. As we progress forward—and I think the Chief is correct—we’re sitting on Onondaga Lake, and we also have to protect our heritage, our watersheds and our environment. Part of the ban on hydrofracking does exactly that. You know, Onondaga Lake, in particular, is one of the most polluted lakes in the world. And that was a result, directly, of economic development, businesses coming in with the promise of jobs and growth. And we saw how terribly contaminated the lake has gotten because of those efforts. Again, we wanted to be proactive and stop that process before it happens.

Amy Goodman: Professor Don Siegel, you hear Oren Lyons, chief at Onondaga Nation, express concern about protecting natural resources. Do you share his concerns?

Don Siegel: I absolutely do. But I see greater threats to our water supply than from development of natural gas. The number of accidents or human error that have occurred with respect to the whole industry has been very, very, very small. And I see road salt, I see pharmaceuticals, I see everyone who has a septic system, contributing to local groundwater contamination problems far more than I could ever envision from failed gas wells.

Amy Goodman: Oren Lyons, when you hear Professor Siegel speaking, does it allay your concerns?

Chief Oren Lyons: Well, I work internationally quite a bit with a lot of scientists on this issue of global warming and the protection of resources and the burgeoning human population. I see, and the Onondaga Council and the Six Nations see, two events occurring right now. One is a compounding of human population. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people in the world. And 60 years later, we have seven [billion], and fairly soon we’re going to have two more billion. That requires water. That requires food. That requires a safe place to live. And then the other compound action that’s occurring is the ice is melting in the north. The ice is melting in Greenland, and that is exacerbating this whole discussion on global warming. And so, we have, in the large prospective—and this is global issue, and if you have to—you have to look at things in a global term, and we do. We take the long view and the large view. And we see that you have to protect the commons. You have to protect the future. And so, any kind of taking chances on the fundamental issue of drinking water is really a chance that you shouldn’t take.

Amy Goodman: Kathleen Joy, are other cities calling you from around the country?

Kathleen Joy: They’re looking at what we’ve done, yes. We know that Albany has just—they’ve just vetoed their hydrofracking. We have the city of Buffalo, Syracuse, and some of the smaller municipalities. I’m hoping that we could join together and send that message to Albany about the concerns that we have over hydrofracking.

Amy Goodman: I want to thank you all very much for being with us. This is certainly a story that we will continue to follow. Kathleen Joy, majority leader at the Syracuse Common Council; Chief Oren Lyons with the Onondaga Nation, the Faithkeeper with the Onondaga Council of Chiefs; and Don Siegel, professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University.