Yoko Ono on Anti-Fracking Bus Ahead of Cuomo Decision

Yoko Ono, who opposes hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, looks to Pennsylvania and sees her worst fears realized. New York landowners, eager for the cash energy development can bring, see a promised land.

In a last-ditch lobbying blitz, both sides are pitching their opposing visions to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has until next month to decide whether the drilling process also known as fracking can be used in his state. New York holds the largest untapped reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that runs through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Talisman Energy Inc. are among companies that have purchased drilling rights.

Ono, the musician widow of Beatle John Lennon, and their son, Sean Lennon, are scheduled to host a press tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, today to visit residents who say fracking contaminated drinking water. Drillers say the process is safe and a group called the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York sees it as an engine of economic recovery for downtrodden dairy farmers and small businesses.

“Our people are just real, true, heart-and-soul people who want a future for their kids,” Susan Oliver, a spokeswoman for the landowners coalition, said in an interview. “Professional activists” such as Ono and Lennon, “don’t even understand the process of fracking.”

Landowners’ Card

The landowners group distributed a greeting card to its members, urging each to send a copy to Cuomo. The card has a picture of an abandoned, rundown farmhouse in New York state next to one of a modern, working farm in Pennsylvania.

“Happy New Year from your New York constituents,” reads the caption on the card. “Hoping that 2013 brings NY the environmental and economic advantages that Natural Gas development has already brought to our PA neighbors!”

The coalition has been sending studies to Cuomo by outside groups from as far away as Australia to counter those done by drilling opponents, said Dan Fitzsimmons, the group’s president. He said they hope to release radio advertisements similar to those that aired late last year highlighting the economic boom in Pennsylvania that New York could see if fracking were approved.

“We’re coming down to the last mile here,” Fitzsimmons said in an interview. “We all worked really hard the last four and a-half years. You don’t want to lay down and quit now.”

Celebrity Firepower

Not to be outdone, more than 200,000 comments from opponents of hydraulic fracturing were delivered to regulators in the state capital of Albany on Jan. 11 by Ono and Lennon. Two days earlier, about 500 people turned out at a rally against fracking in Albany as Cuomo delivered his State of the State address, crowding out about 300 pro-drilling protesters.

Celebrity firepower “helps raise the profile of the issue for the public, which affects the overall politics in a way that is helpful,” Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.

Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat, has until Feb. 27 to approve environmental regulations that would open New York to the type of gas production that has made overnight millionaires of some in Pennsylvania while leaving others complaining that drilling contaminated their drinking water.

Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone call requesting comment.

Since July 2008, New York regulators have been drafting rules for fracking, a drilling process in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water is forced underground to shatter rock and allow gas to flow. New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale may hold about 13 percent of all gas in the formation, second to Pennsylvania’s 69 percent, according to Terry Engelder, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University.

Draft Rules

The state imposed a moratorium on fracking while environmental rules were drafted. Groups have submitted over 200,000 comments on the latest set of rules, according to Alex Beauchamp, northeast regional director for the environment group Food & Water Watch. If it’s determined that fracking cannot be done safely, the moratorium will continue and the rules will not go into effect, according to Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency oversees oil and gas development.

“The governor was kind of hoping the opposition to this would die down as the process went on and it’s done just the opposite,” Beauchamp said in an interview. “By showing that millions of New Yorkers don’t want this you ultimately force the governor to say, ‘Okay, this is going to be politically damaging to me.’”

Deadline Missed

In September, Cuomo asked Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to assess fracking with the help of outside analysts. The move was designed to help ensure the state’s final decision is “legally defensible,” Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens said in an e-mailed statement at the time.

Under state law, agencies must issue regulations within 365 days of the last public hearing. The deadline was extended to Feb. 27 for the health study. A further delay is possible. In his Jan. 9 State of the State address, Cuomo didn’t mention drilling or natural gas, even as anti-fracking protesters lined a walkway leading to the convention center where the governor spoke.

“We’re doing a review of fracking on the merits,” Cuomo said at a Jan. 10 press briefing in Albany.

Were Cuomo to allow fracking, energy development in New York would proceed slowly, according to a Jan. 15 research note from Kroll Bond Ratings.

Slow Approach

“The industry is likely to take a slow approach, fearing legal challenges, court-imposed injunctions on permitting and a well-organized amalgam of grass-root organizations opposed to any fracking, even with far more stringent environmental requirements,” according to the note.

Fracking would create 15,000 to 18,000 jobs in southern and western New York areas that lost a combined 48,000 positions in the last decade, according to a 2011 report by the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based organization that supports drilling. Environmental groups maintain that the proposed regulations will fail to prevent water contamination and air pollution.

“The Cuomo administration and the legislature need to come up with other economic opportunities for people in these areas,” said Sinding, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We remain very concerned that the state, if it moved forward now and on the basis of these regulations, would not be adequately protective.”

Artists Group

Ono, who lives in New York City, and Lennon, a musician and composer, have organized a group of artists opposed to fracking that includes Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman, according to the website Artists Against Fracking. The group’s website allows people to send an electronic message to Cuomo urging a ban on fracking.

“Fracking kills,” Ono said at a Jan. 11 press briefing in Albany. “So it’s such a pity that we’re going to do that, we’re going to commit suicide altogether.”

In the lobbying battle, both sides claim to have true grassroots bona fides.

“To me it all comes down to numbers,” said Beauchamp, with Food and Water Watch. “When you look at the real numbers and who’s turning real people out, it’s us. It’s the people against fracking.”

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