A supergroup forms in the anti-fracking movement


Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono joined with activist Mark Ruf­falo at a Man­hat­tan press con­fer­ence this week, adding their voices to the anti-fracking move­ment at a time when Gov­er­nor Cuomo is in the late stages of a fate­ful deter­mi­na­tion about per­mit­ting frack­ing in New York State.

In the cur­rent plans out­lined by the gov­er­nor, gas extrac­tion would be intro­duced first in strug­gling coun­ties on the west­ern perime­ter of the state, the­o­ret­i­cally only in areas where res­i­dents wel­come the indus­try as a boost to the local economy.

To crit­ics of the governor’s plan, frack­ing is unac­cept­ably risky any­where. Dur­ing the press con­fer­ence the Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity engi­neer and frack­ing expert Anthony Ingraf­fea made a quick and com­pelling case: by the industry’s own esti­ma­tion, one in twenty new wells fail, allow­ing chem­i­cals and methane to seep into the sur­round­ing soil and rock, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing the water table and vent­ing methane (a green­house gas twenty times as heat-trapping as car­bon diox­ide) into the atmosphere.

The film­maker Josh Fox, the direc­tor of the doc­u­men­tary Gasland, fol­lowed Ingraf­fea with excerpts from his next film, The Sky is Pink, which details the influ­ence of indus­try on the deci­sions in New York State.

The press con­fer­ence served as the launch of a much larger coali­tion of cre­ative peo­ple opposed to frack­ing, which Lennon and Ono have helped orga­nize under the name Artists Against Frack­ing. The depth and breadth of this group is remark­able, and may rep­re­sent the begin­ning of a new stage in con­fronta­tion about an issue that is very much in the back­yard (in some cases, lit­er­ally) of many world famous artists. Names attached to the group include Paul McCart­ney and Ringo Starr, Robert DeNiro, and Lady Gaga.

The points made by Ruf­falo and Lennon at the press con­fer­ence were thought­ful, informed and pre­cise. Sean Lennon noted that it’s the industry’s own research that shows how unsafe frack­ing is in prac­tice. Ruf­falo, in turn, thanked the fos­sil fuel indus­try for pro­duc­ing the past one hun­dred years of cheap fuels, which has pro­vided the nation with the tech­nol­ogy and resources nec­es­sary to build a new energy sys­tem based on renew­ables. The empha­sis from all the speak­ers was that this change should be hap­pen­ing now, and that the U.S., and New York State, should be lead­ers in this urgent trans­for­ma­tion of our energy sup­ply, rather than lag­ging behind coun­tries like Ger­many, where renew­ables already account for 20% of the energy mix.

Sean Lennon and the Artists Against Frack­ing group are at odds not only with the gov­er­nor, but also with Mayor Bloomberg, who has expressed hope that frack­ing can be done safely. The con­trast can be read in their own words: Sean Lennon’s op ed against frack­ing in the New York Times was pub­lished the day before the press con­fer­ence, and Mayor Bloomberg’s op ed in sup­port of more research in the Wash­ing­ton Post came out on August 23. (Mayor Bloomberg has backed up his words by donat­ing six mil­lion dol­lars to the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund for a study of safe frack­ing methods.)

The Kingston Daily Free­man notes a con­tra­dic­tion in Mayor Bloomberg’s stance, in that he (and the gov­er­nor) would ban frack­ing from the New York City water­shed — essen­tially an admis­sion that they do not believe it is per­fectly safe.

Much study is going into how the pros and cons of frack­ing affect the larger bat­tle against cli­mate change. Fre­quent ben­e­fits cited are that gas is a cleaner fos­sil fuel than coal, and solar and wind sys­tems can be paired with quick-starting gas power plants to sta­bi­lize the grid when the wind dies down or the sun sets. Draw­backs — going beyond pos­si­ble dam­age to water sup­plies — are that frack­ing often releases methane, and that even build­ing new gas power plants may negate much of the later gains in effi­ciency over coal.

To con­sider those ideas, there are two recent overviews in Dis­cover, “Will Frack­ing Help or Hin­der the Fight Against Cli­mate Change,” by Keith Kloor, and at Cli­mate Cen­tral, “Nat­ural Gas Our New Sav­ior? Not So Fast…,” by Michael Lemonick.

It would seem that Gov­er­nor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, the gas indus­try and the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund are on a col­li­sion course with this newly formed super­group of activists (along with sev­eral other main­stream envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that are opposed to frack­ing). But in the let­ter to the gov­er­nor that accom­pa­nies the Artists Against Frack­ing press mate­ri­als, Lennon and Ono are thought­ful and respect­ful; the deeper les­son may be that as cit­i­zens who need a fast and smooth path to a low car­bon future, it is now nec­es­sary for all of us to be as fully informed and engaged as this group has become themselves.

Pho­tos: City Atlas