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Finding our Fossil Fuel Fix: Hydrofracking, Deepwater Drilling and Mountain Top Removal

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Hydrofracking, a method of injecting water, sand and chemicals into rock formations 8,000 feet deep in order to extract natural gas, is becoming a major environmental issue in New York State. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. EPA are currently studying the costs and benefits of hydrofracking. Carl Paladino described its economic benefits during the recent gubernatorial debate, although its practice is being tightly regulated in New York. Upstate New York is in the midst of an economic downturn that seems to be permanent, and everything from casinos to mega-malls and now hydrofracking has been sold as an economic cure-all. Upstate New York, along with parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, sits atop the Marcellus Shale, an underground geologic formation that is loaded with natural gas. Like its cousin, mountain top removal, hydrofracking is a high-tech way of extracting fossil fuels that can have devastating impacts on surrounding ecosystems.

The film Gasland presents the story in all its gruesome detail, and a piece this summer by Joel Kirkland of Climatewire posted in the New York Times details the enormous investments being made by energy companies hoping to profit from these huge gas deposits. According to Kirkland:

"In northern Appalachia, deep-seated public anxiety has set in about the environmental impact of horizontal gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Regulators responsible for protecting the clean water supplies of New York City and Philadelphia have called a drilling timeout in the Delaware River watershed. But rivers of corporate cash continue to flow into the Marcellus and other shale fields. The magnitude of investment this year alone suggests energy companies have no plans to retreat from an ocean of recoverable gas.,, The low cost of producing Marcellus gas, its pipeline-ready quality and its proximity to consumers in the Northeast have driven investment."

The size of these gas deposits is enticing, and their ability to lower the price of electricity and home heating may prove irresistible. Unfortunately the cost to repair the damage hydrofracking will cause to our ecosystems is not included in the price of the gas. Those costs will be paid by the all of us, long after these energy companies have departed having extracted energy and wealth and left behind severe environmental degradation.

There is a trend here that we should pay attention to. Deep water drilling for oil, mountaintop removal for coal and hydrofacking for gas are high tech methods of extracting fossil fuels from the earth. These techniques are becoming cost effective as the fossil fuel deposits get more and more difficult to mine. Our technology and desperation for fuel move forward at nearly the same pace. The risks to our ecosystems are ignored. Just as we wrecked havoc on the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010, so too will the Catskills and Appalachian mountains be damaged in order to mine gas from the Marcellus shale.

As important as the gas is to our economic well being, New York City's water supply is even more important and must be considered irreplaceable. Thus far, hyrdofracking has not taken place in the watershed that supplies the city's water. The Delaware watershed provides water for more than 16 million people. Its degradation would require that the City build a filtration plant that would cost at least $6 billion to build and take over $300 million a year to run. Putting that resource at risk is beyond shortsighted; it is an act of environmental lunacy. Since 1970, we have spent $6 billion on a third tunnel to supply water to New York City. It won't be worth much if there is no clean water for it to carry.

The BP oil spill will end up costing over $20 billion. The destruction of New York City's water system would cost much more. What additional motivation do we need to develop a crash program to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy? At what point will we recognize the sheer waste and destruction that high tech fossil fuel extraction will generate? As impressive as these technologies may be, they represent a waste of brainpower in pursuit of the wrong energy strategy. Hydrofracking, deepwater drilling and mountain top removal are the desperate acts of desperate addicts who will go anywhere and do anything to find their fossil fuel fix. I think it may be time to consider entering rehab.

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