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