On New York Shale Gas, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon Say Let It Be

Photographer: Eric Roston

Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and Susan Sarandon talk with the locals and media regarding hydraulic fracturing for gas reserves in their area. Close

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Photographer: Eric Roston

Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and Susan Sarandon talk with the locals and media regarding hydraulic fracturing for gas reserves in their area.

“This is not a place we should be delivering water on trucks.”

Sean Ono Lennon, the musician and son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was holding a mic, but he wasn't singing. He was addressing about 30 passengers from the front of a bus driving through wooded, snow-dusted northeastern Pennsylvania. Josh Fox, director of the 2010 documentary Gasland, sat in the front row, looking up at Lennon from under his signature New York Yankees cap. Ono was four rows back, her gray fedora tilted starboard.

The activists had traveled three hours from Manhattan to Dimock, Pennsylvania, a town featured in Fox’s film. The region is at war with itself over the natural-gas drilling technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the air pollution and water contamination that have alarmed some residents since the practice took off several years ago. The trip was a tour of frack sites designed to attract press attention and convince New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to delay fracking regulations that he must rule on by Feb. 27

Lennon attended a public meeting held last summer by a small consortium of companies developing the Pennsylvania-to-New York Constitution Pipeline. Representatives told residents about the project and its proposed route, designed to convey natural gas from the Keystone State’s fracking fields to central New York, where customers now get much of their gas from Canada. The project is expected carry gas near a property Ono has owned for more than 30 years. Lennon and Ono are concerned that pipelines, which they said risk leaks, will enable more gas infrastructure, including drilling, with still greater risks to their property and community down the road. Stop the pipeline, the thinking goes, and you stop the gas infrastructure before it gains a foothold in a community. Lennon says he has never embraced an activist campaign before -- “I tend to prefer the bosom of my instruments” -- but was moved to act because it was personal.

Lennon emphasized the permanent changes to property and wilderness. “Those pipes are essentially highways of death through the forest, because you can never plant any crops on them," he said. "You can never plant any trees on them -- legally, forever -- and there’s no lease expiration on the pipes. They have a permanent place in our wilderness from that point on.”

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Lennon put aside his piano and guitar for a bit last July to give himself a crash course in the science and politics of hydraulic fracturing, the oil-and-gas drilling technology that has elevated the United States to a natural-gas superpower. Within two weeks, he had written a Bob Dylan-parody protest song,  “Don’t Frack My Mother,” and performed it on Jimmy Fallon's show, on  July 13. He started a website and campaign called Artists Against Fracking, drawing signatures from Paul McCartney, his late father’s 1960s songwriting partner, as well as writer George Saunders, Martha Stewart, MGMT, Beck, Fallon and dozens of others.

Actress Susan Sarandon has lent her name to Lennon’s group and was also on the  Dimock trip, providing some of the day’s handiest epigrams (“There’s so many ways to get clean energy and only one way to get clean water”) and quips. At one stop, a pro-fracking filmmaker named Phelim McAleer, dressed somewhat strikingly for Dimock in a black overcoat and a trilby, shouted at Sarandon, asking what she was doing there representing the one percent, not the 99 percent, of people in Dimock. 

“I’m trying to find a hat like yours,” Sarandon said.

For Lennon, Ono and their neighbors in New York’s Delaware County, the clock is ticking. On Jan. 11, they delivered to Albany more than 200,000 comments from opponents of drilling in the state. Their goal at this stage is to further extend a moratorium on fracking in New York, put in place in 2008 while regulations were being developed. 

“It’s hard to hold on to the land and pay the mortgage without an income,” Shepstone said. 

The morning’s first stop was at a well pad on the residential property of the Hollenbeck family, in the town of Franklin Forks. Four green pumps, like needles several feet tall, stood 30 yards or so from the road, a faint  industrial rasp emanating from the area. Ono, Lennon and Sarandon were surrounded by a scrum of reporters and camera operators about 20 yards to my left, positioned so the cameras could capture their image with the well site in the background. In its “choreography,” a word used at one point by the trip’s organizer, David Fenton of Fenton Communications, the tour was structured a little like a U.S. presidential campaign press bus.

A man with white hair stood near me, his jacket embroidered with the logo of Energy in Depth, an industry-funded communications project. He was Tom Shepstone, the group’s campaign director. Shepstone was following the tour bus, with its  celebrity activists and journalists. Vera Scroggins, a local activist who spoke that day and was profiled by Bloomberg News in September, said she sometimes gives tours two or three times a week to visiting activists or media.

Shepstone offered a motivation for residents who welcome drilling onto their property. “It’s hard to hold on to the land and pay the mortgage without an income,” he said. 

When he intercepted the tour bus at a later stop, the house of activist Craig Stevens, Shepstone pointed out a sign in front of the house across the street that read “Dimock Proud.” He described the sign as an emblem posted by homeowners soured on fracking opponents, who cast the entire town as polluted. He cited the EPA’s 2012 conclusion that water tested in Dimock didn’t contain contamination exceeding federal safe drinking-water standards, a conclusion contested by local activists and Fox, the filmmaker. The EPA doesn’t set maximum levels for methane.

“EPA has failed here at Dimock,” said Wilson. “It has walked away from Dimock.”

On a neighborhood level, you can see why workers terrified of losing income from gas-related jobs are enraged by neighbors who are terrified that their houses and bodies are being contaminated by the drilling process and leaking wells -- and vice versa. Those tensions were on display in the afternoon in front of the home of Ray Kemble, where the fracking protesters examined a jug of unappetizing brown water that Kemble showed them. In contrast to Tom Shepstone's professional appearance and demeanor, several drilling supporters gave the anti-frackers a dose of the anger and frustration felt within the pro-fracking community. 

“Yoko Ono, you are on notice!” one man yelled. He told the group that without gas-related income, his wife wouldn't have survived cancer. “You are on notice!”

The pipeline, which isn’t related to Cuomo’s imminent decision on fracking in New York State, is a partnership between Williams Cos., Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and Piedmont Natural Gas Co.; the primary route (pdf) that the consortium will submit to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was released last week. The company says that since the spring, it has asked for response to its initial proposal from citizens, government and “numerous other interested parties,” resulting in a final route that “reflects changes to more than 50 percent of the original pipeline alignment introduced during open houses last July -- most a direct result of stakeholder input.”

The name of the project, the Constitution Pipeline, "is intended to represent freedom,” Christopher Stockton of Williams Cos. wrote in an email. “In this case, providing markets freedom to access to domestic gas supply sources that they currently cannot access.”

Because of events in Dimock and elsewhere, the U.S. is engaged in a national discussion of natural gas and how it’s now widely acquired -- by drilling vertically and horizontally, splintering methane-rich shale rock with explosives and pumping in water and chemicals to liberate the gas. Shale gas and fracking have transformed the U.S. energy picture in a way that few could have predicted even as recently as five years ago, overwhelming local activists and now their national supporters, who are trying to establish the potential cost in poisoned lives and communities. The percentage of U.S. natural gas produced by fracking shale rock has grown from about 1.67 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2011 and will reach 50.4 percent in 2040, according to projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The bus trip’s celebrity plumage was the lure to get journalists into an enclosed motor vehicle with the local activists and a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official named Wes Wilson. In 2004, Wilson sought whistleblower protection after an agency study of hydraulic fracturing in coal-bed methane deposits concluded that the chemicals the industry used are toxic but that they posed no risks -- a paradox that drove him to Congress and the EPA Inspector General’s office. The next year, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, essentially shutting down the issue for a time, he said. Last year came the EPA’s statement declaring drinking water safe in Dimock. “EPA has failed here at Dimock,” said Wilson, an environmental engineer. “It has walked away from Dimock.”

During a made-for-TV-news shouting match between drilling opponents and supporters, Wilson patiently walked me through the two main kinds of chemical tests that are routinely conducted in or around homes near fracking sites, which sniff out methane and hazardous BTEX chemicals, benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. 

A key problem (as it is with climate change and was with tobacco) isn’t with testing per se. It’s that any scientific ambiguity is easily exploited in public talking points, he said, and with fracking, ambiguities remain. Positive tests for methane or BTEX chemicals might not automatically implicate a nearby well, because most places lack what scientists call baseline data. Without pre-fracking studies, it can be difficult to demonstrate that leaks occurred only after drilling began. 

Lennon fancifully likened drilling and gas production to awakening a sleeping dragon. His mother said later of the comparison, “That’s beautiful,” but, thinking on it some more, suggested “it’s a sign of a devil, actually. In my mind it’s more like a snake. A dragon is too big; you’re giving too much respect for this thing."

Ono’s 45-year career in the public eye has produced some of our most enduring images of art and activism. She startled the world in the late 1960s with performance art, like her and John Lennon’s two “bed-ins for peace” in 1969. As newlyweds the pair channeled media attention from their wedding into anti-war activism by staying in hotel beds for a week and inviting reporters to join them. What’s changed since the late 1960s, Ono said, is the  number of people who are activists for something. 

“When John and I started doing something, we looked around and not many people were doing it,” she said. Now, she sees widespread activism as a part of modern life. 

I asked Lennon about how as a musician he thinks about the balance between two kinds of civic participation -- artistic expression, like his Fallon performance, and official expression, like his January presentation of the comments in Albany. Facing a deadline, as he does with Cuomo’s anticipated decision over fracking in New York, does creativity need to take a back seat to the legal comment process? 

Art doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time to produce, he said. It takes time to sink in. 

“‘Give Peace a Chance’ was written on the day that they recorded and performed it,” he said of his parents’ 1969 anti-war anthem. 

When the target is popular consciousness writ large, rather than a governor, art needs to marinate in people’s minds, he said. Audiences judge it, absorb it and, if it works, change the way they think and behave.

“Unfortunately," Lennon said, "we might not have that kind of time for people to change their minds about fossil fuels.”   

Correction: This story originally described Phelim McAleer as an industry supporter; he is a pro-fracking filmmaker. He also clarified that when he referred to the "one percent" of Dimock, he means "the one percent in a numerical context not financial."

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