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October 23, 2016
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Getting gas drilling done

Noel van Swol’s voice was courageous and always at the center of the storm. He had a big vision of the benefits gas drilling could bring to our community and a forceful determination to get it done. While it wasn’t easy to discuss tactics with him—he could be maddeningly stubborn—I often wished I had his clarity and focus. I mourn our loss.

As the grief takes its course, we should look at what problems need solving.

Some thoughtful, intelligent people are concerned about risks: long- and short-term health impacts, aquifer degradation, contention for water, air and water pollution, seismic activity, underground migration of natural and introduced toxicity, property value decline, insurance and mortgage availability, protection of town assets, tax increases, distribution of government revenue and local government legal risk. These concerns are not being expressed just by local people; these are being expressed globally, wherever fracking is being done or contemplated.

As experience with horizontal fracking accumulates, and as a wider variety of researchers do their work, the risks will become clearer. Governments are increasingly reluctant to move forward without fully understanding and addressing the risks.

Noel gave voice to the vision, but the front lines have to make it happen. And the front lines are getting bogged down. We can’t just make these risks go away by bullying the opposition, by repeating ourselves, by disrespecting our neighbors, by trivializing people’s motives, or through embarrassing and petty town board maneuvers. Those techniques are not just ineffective, they actually delay resolution by engendering resistance.

Signs of such increased resistance are appearing in towns that had avoided organized legal action. For example, petitions were presented to the Town of Delaware board, which refused to reconsider its unrepresentative resolution and its inaccurate letter to Governor Cuomo. Then, patronizingly, the board decided to create a commission. Seriously, do our elected representatives really think that kind of disrespect won’t engender resistance? So, the Slottjes family from the Community Environmental Defense Council stepped up and filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the Town of Delaware. In this context, that is not benign. And just a few weeks ago, Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, announced the formation of the new Community Fracking Defense Project, which will offer assistance to those who want it in five states, including New York and Pennsylvania.

We had petitions, and now we have lawyers and FOIA requests. Does anyone think that such a course will be over quickly? Does anyone think that all the people worried about the risks of fracking have no reason to be worried and that all the courts to be involved will just summarily dismiss their cases? Does anyone think the legal powerhouses arraying against horizontal fracking are inexperienced or stupid or can be outspent? Does anyone think we can afford the decade or more of brutal legal bills to take on these formidable opponents? And even if we had all the money in the world and hired the best bulldog attorneys, would winning make the risks go away?

Whether we like them or not, whether we agree with them or not, some thoughtful and intelligent people see the risks as significant and real. Until we turn down the volume and start respectfully listening, until we focus on the specifics, and unless we can arrive at solutions upon which all can agree, no benefits of fracking will be realized here.

My heartfelt sympathies to Noel van Swol’s family and friends.

Paul Hindes
Kenoza Lake, NY

[Paul Hindes, a former Wall Street executive, is an active investor in the stock market where he pays attention to global energy markets. From 2008-2010, he was a volunteer with the Multi-Municipal Task Force (MMTF), which consists of eight Sullivan County towns working together to create uniform road preservation laws. These laws are intended to protect town roads during the higher levels of use in large-scale industrial activity, including gas drilling.]