Tonawanda News

Bob Confer

January 24, 2012

CONFER: Sifting through fracking propaganda

— — Hydrofracking ranks among the most contentious issues in New York. For each person clamoring for the jobs and economic development it will bring to the Empire State, there’s another who strongly opposes the method of natural gas extraction for its potential to damage the environment.  

I can see the points on both sides. I’m 100 percent confident that the economic benefit to the counties that border Pennsylvania will be absolutely astounding. They are among the poorest regions in our state, and it would be good to see their residents finally do well. Yet, on the other hand, I see considerable risk in the consumption of vast reserves of fresh water and the use and disposal thereof, only after it has been tainted by unidentified chemicals. The Allegheny foothills and the waters that flow from them are unique habitats, home to equally unique plants and animals. It would be horrible to see them forever altered as a consequence of Man’s actions. Our predecessors already did that with the Niagara River in the name of progress.

So, I see much benefit in the moratorium on fracking and the associated public comment period. If we allow the Department of Environmental Conservation some time to assess such development in other states, we can maximize our successes and minimize our failures. The DEC also needs time to sift through all the baloney. Both sides of the issue have inundated the agency with mistruths and half-truths.

The DEC as a public entity must be able to approach hydrofracking from a reasonable, thoughtful, and well-informed perspective. That’s difficult with all of the one-sided propaganda thrown their way. As an example, one of the most sensationalized talking points that dominate the conversation against hydrofracking — ultimately doing a great disservice to meaningful aspects of the environmental movement — is this belief that the process can set your drinking water on fire.

This goes back to the popular anti-fracking documentary, “Gasland.” In a famous moment from it, Colorado property owner Mike Markham puts a lighter to his running tap and a huge fireball ensues. What the film did not say is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found that the methane in Markham’s drinking water was naturally occurring and not a result of fracking. The COGCC also notified Markham and others with similar complaints that they should be venting their private wells to prevent the entrapment of excess levels of gas found in them. In short, Markham’s problems are the doing of Mother Nature and himself.

It should also be noted that flammable water can occur throughout the United States, even in areas far away from the typical hotbeds of past and future gas extraction; case in point: Gasport. It’s called “Gas”port for a reason. The hamlet once known as Jamesport had its name changed in 1826 when an engineering team working on the Erie Canal found gas emanating from the ground and water.

Most of those sites have long since been built over, but one remains on our farm. There is a small area, maybe an acre in size, where, even in the heat of summer, the soil remains cold to the touch. The shore of a stream froths white, stinky methane-loaded compounds, and, most interestingly, the water itself bubbles non-stop from gas. There, I can repeat Markham’s experiment, although in a more natural setting (sans tap). If I place a match over the bubbles, the flame expands and puffs. If I lay a plastic bag over the water and allow the gas to build up within it and then light it, the bag “explodes.” Decades ago, when hoboes traveled the land, they set pipes in the water to create eternal flames for cooking. And, believe it or not, hydrofracking has never occurred here!

The moral to the story is this: We, as good citizens — and the agencies that oversee our public welfare — should proceed intellectually, not emotionally, when it comes to hydrofracking. We must ignore the hype from both sides (such as this fire water mythology) and proceed in manner that best serves our people, economy and environment. We have but one chance to get it right.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. His column is published on Tuesdays. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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Bob Confer