Fighting Fracking in the Hudson Valley: Actor Mark Ruffalo Leads the Movement to Stop Hydraulic Fracturing for New York’s Natural Gas
Could high-volume hydraulic fracturing be used to mine natural gas in the Valley? Some area residents — including a famous actor — are working to ensure that never happens
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Star power: Actor Mark Ruffalo shows his true colors at a fly-fishing event in Roscoe, Sullivan County, last spring. Ruffalo — who lives nearby — has been a vocal opponent to fracking, a process which he and other activists claim causes air and water pollution (among other problems)
Photograph courtesy of www.un-naturalgas.org
It seemed to take members of the legislature the length of a double take before they could place his identity. Wasn’t he Terry, the wayward brother in You Can Count on Me? Isn’t he the sperm donor motorcycle dude in The Kids Are Alright? They were right. But this time actor Mark Ruffalo had not traveled to Albany to promote his latest film. He was there as a citizen of the Catskills, where he has lived with his wife and three children on the banks of the Delaware River for the last decade. It was his first time in front of the legislature; it has not been his last. Although Ruffalo insists he’s “really no different from so many others,” he is putting his star power to use and emerging as a vocal leader in the local anti-fracking movement. The tables are starting to turn. Less than five months after this appearance, then Governor David Patterson issued Executive Order 41, which requires the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to assess the hazards of high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. During that process, expected to take about three years, a de facto fracking moratorium is in place, making New York the first state in the nation to place a formal time-out on the practice.
As recently as three years ago, few in the Hudson Valley had even heard of fracking. But it has quickly become the environmental issue du jour, both in the state and nationwide. In an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, gas companies began drilling underground in parts of the country decades ago. To date, close to a half million active natural gas wells exist in 34 states. Proponents argue that it is a cash cow, supplying thousands of jobs; they also point to the recent nuclear power plant scare in Japan and the rising fuel pump prices as reasons to drill. Opponents say that the many chemicals used in the process are dangerous and quickly pollute both the drinking water and the air. They point out that on the state level, there has not been one piece of legislation passed to regulate high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
Stuck squarely in the middle are the region’s farmers, who are having a difficult time making a living and are being offered gobs of money from the gas companies for the right to drill on their land.
Nearby Pennsylvania is a hot spot for natural gas — and fracking. The state is riddled with about 71,000 natural gas wells. But it wasn’t until about 2003 that the drilling industry discovered a vast amount of gas stored in the rich Marcellus Shale, a 400 million-year-old natural gas field that has its southern-most tip in West Virginia and reaches 29 New York counties, including Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster. About a mile underground in most places, it is the largest continuous shale compound in the U.S., and is thought to have enough natural gas to provide at least 10 years’ worth of fuel for the entire nation. Companies have raced to the depths, drilling 2,359 wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus from 2007 through 2010. Down there, hydraulic fracking is king. Last year’s Gasland, the HBO-produced documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox, highlighted the happenings in the tiny town of Dimock, where fracking has — apparently — wreaked havoc on the locals’ quality of life. A now infamous scene, played repeatedly on YouTube, shows a kitchen faucet bursting into flames. (Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, which is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S., recently told shareholders that studies have not confirmed that fracking causes well-water contamination. Rather, he said, such cases are the result of poor drilling practices 60 to 80 years ago.)