Gas wells, jobs, and chicken coops

The fracking ban’s expansion hits the NYS Senate

by Robert Lynch; March 24, 2024

State Senator Lea Webb, our representative, and sponsor of the Senate’s expansion of the NY fracking ban.

For Democrats, like our own State Senator, Lea Webb, it was all about safety.  For Republicans, it was a probe for ulterior motives. 

Following more than a half-hour’s debate packed with pointed exchanges last Wednesday, New York’s upper house gave final legislative approval and sent to Governor Kathy Hochul an expansion of the state’s decade-long ban on hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas.  The revision would expand the existing prohibition to cover the use of carbon dioxide—in addition to water-based substances—as the propellant that cracks the shale, extracts the gas—and yes, creates high-paying jobs in the process.

Binghamton’s Webb sponsored the expanded fracking ban in the Senate.  Ithaca’s Anna Kelles had done so in the Assembly.  The Senate on March 20th endorsed Webb’s measure, 46 votes to 16.  The Assembly granted Kelles’ identical bill passage, 98 votes to 50, eight days earlier.  Governor Hochul has yet to sign or veto the legislation.

“It is important that we close the loophole with respect to this proposed practice before further issues ensue,” Webb insisted.  

“As a representative of the Southern Tier, but more importantly, as a concerned citizen, I refuse to have my district, or quite frankly, any resident in the State of New York to be a guinea pig for a practice to have a ‘pilot,’ that we know that CO2 mining is quite simply hydrofracking, but just called by a different name,” Webb said, explaining her vote just before she cast it.

“This isn’t about energy,” Downstate Democrat Liz Krueger told the Senate about CO2 fracking.  “This is a model that if it’s allowed to go forward would be killing people, destroying land, killing agriculture… I’m quite sure the Governor will sign this bill.”

For a dozen minutes Wednesday, Senator Webb faced grilling on the floor about her bill from a Republican Senator from the western Southern Tier, George Borello.

Borello’s central argument held that New York has lost countless jobs to frack-friendly Pennsylvania in the near-decade since former Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed a statewide hydrofracking ban and the State Legislature later affirmed it. His argument: We lose while Pennsylvania wins.

Sen. Tom O’Mara, Borello’s ally: “Natural gas is going to be part of our life… like it or not.”

“The Southern Tier runs along the border of the State of Pennsylvania,” Borello stated.  “The State of Pennsylvania has actually been hydrofracking for years.  It has been an economic boon that the State of New York has not been able to participate in because of the ban.”

Borello continued, “We talk about negative health impacts.  But it’s really been done literally feet from New York State, in some cases literally on the border of New York State, and yet we haven’t seen those health impacts… But yet, if there were any negative impacts, we would be suffering those impacts without any of the economic benefits of that fracking.”

All Senate Democrats supported Webb’s legislation.  All opposing votes came from Republicans, including the three who once represented Tompkins County; Senators O’Mara, Oberacker, and Helming.  Four from the GOP crossed-over to support Webb’s bill.

Back in 2015, former Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked hydrofracking by executive order.  His action followed by several years the imposition of local bans by the Town of Enfield and others.  The State Legislature strengthened Cuomo’s executive order by making it state law in 2020.

But in recent months, a Texas firm, Southern Tier CO2 to Clean Energy Solutions (Southern Tier Solutions) has sought to circumvent the New York ban, critics say.  It proposes use of an experimental process that would replace treated water with “super-critical carbon dioxide.” This super-CO2 would be sent down pipes as a propellant to crack the shale and release the natural gas.  Southern Tier Solutions has reportedly approached numerous New York landowners and offered them leases to permit the drilling.

Sen. Krueger: This would destroy land; kill people and agriculture.

On March 12th, when Republicans in the Assembly had placed Ithaca’s Anna Kelles on the hot seat, Dr. Kelles offered explanations—and often encouraged questions—that were wonkish and technical, much in line with the scientist that the Ithaca Assemblymember is.  By contrast, the Senate’s questions of Lea Webb proved more generalized. They focused on foreclosed economic opportunities, and on whether the expanded ban served as merely a smokescreen to obscure Democrats’ less transparent objective: namely a Green New Deal ban on fossil fuels altogether.

Contemplative, or instead, maybe unsure of herself, Senator Webb—at least, when replayed from the Senate’s session archives—often hesitated to answer when Borello fielded questions at her during Wednesday’s debate.  One pregnant pause lasted 41 seconds.  The camera caught legislative clerks idle and impatient, rapping their fingers, awaiting her response.

“As I read the bill, essentially this is about extracting natural gas to be burned in power plants,” Borello questioned Webb.   “You’re opposed to that as a part of this ban, is that correct? Are you opposed to using natural gas as a form of fuel in New York State?”

Lea Webb answered quickly in this instance, yet chose her words with economy.  She dared not wander beyond the matter at hand.

“This bill only pertains to the proposal for CO2 hydrofracking,” Webb answered concisely.

Lea Webb was coy.  But her downstate counterpart, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, was more up-front.

“Today, there’s been some evidence of climate change denialism,” Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat from Manhattan, remarked.  The Senator claimed a Department of Environmental Conservation study has estimated a potential 13-inch rise in his district’s sea levels by the 2030’s. 

“Thirteen inches will mean that parts of my district will disappear,” Hoylman-Sigal warned with alarm.  “So we must do everything in our power to combat the use of fossil fuels.”  Hoylman-Sigal clearly saw Webb’s fracking ban as a means to achieve a much broader goal.

When Hoylman-Sigal heard “climate change denialism” that day, he probably saw the face of George Borello.  Not only was the Chautauqua County Senator the only one to square off directly with Lea Webb in debate.  He also freely countered Democrats’ health and environmental arguments with his own slights against the supposed saviors of the climate crisis: solar panels and wind farms.

Senator Borello on turbines: Arkwright was told the streets would be paved with gold; but now the “jets” never land and the chickens won’t lay.

Of turbines:  “They’re killing off endangered species,” Borello alleged.  “We’re actually allowing American Bald Eagles to be beheaded by the thousands across this country because we’re saving the planet with renewable energy.”

The Town of Arkwright, Borello alleged, was “sold a bill of goods.”  Concerning leaders of that obscure, rural town near Fredonia, he said, “They said the streets are going to be paved with gold because of all the money they’re going to make off of wind turbines.  And now they tell me that 24/7 it sounds like a jet that never lands over their house constantly.”

“They can’t sleep at night; people have had issues with sleeping,” Senator Borello said of the sad souls of Arkwright.  “I’ve had farmers tell me that their chickens are not laying eggs anymore because of the infrasound.”

“It’s hypocritical to say we’re going to ban something that we know no idea about and not willing to admit there are problems  with industrial turbines and solar panels,” Borello concluded.

Senator Borello’s arguments may have cut the widest contrarian path that day, but Tompkins County’s former State Senator, Tom O’Mara, weighed in as well.  O’Mara’s contrasted the wide-eyed idealism of the environmental Left with what he saw as the hard, cold reality of the moment.

“Natural gas is going to be a part of our life, of our energy, of our manufacturing in this country for the rest of our life, like it or not,” O’Mara proclaimed. 

“Farmers, landowners in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania have obtained immense wealth from the recovery of natural gas,” the Big Flats Republican submitted.  “Our farmers, our landowners in the Southern Tier (of New York) have been denied that time and time again.  Now we have another opportunity here.”

Senator Borello would have one believe that the carbon dioxide injected down a gas well is the same as what makes your Pepsi fizz at the soda fountain.  Senator Michelle Hinchey, a Webb ally, countered that fracking gas CO2 is a much different substance.  Lea Webb described the “super-critical” form of the gas as “a volatile substance” and “corrosive.”

Sen. Hoylman-Sigal: a 13-inch sea rise in my district is why I support this ban.

In the Assembly debate, Anna Kelles had cited an incident down south where the carbon dioxide had corroded a pipeline, leaked into the atmosphere, stalled emergency vehicles, and made people sick.

“In my opinion, there is no dollar sign or no amount of money that can cover the cost of long-term health care implications for these type of practices,” Webb said during final remarks.

Most acknowledge that the science Southern Tier Solutions relies upon remains untested at present.  It may work.  It may not.  It may harm people and places.  It may prove innocuous and do no damage.  Those like Senator Webb and all of her fellow Senate Democrats would give caution the benefit of the doubt.  Others, like Senator Borello, would grant the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) the opportunity to evaluate potential impacts before legislators arbitrarily outlaw the practice.

“This is not hydrofracking.  This is a completely different process,” Republican Daniel Stec, a chemical engineer, told the Senate Wednesday.  “This bill is about turning our nose up at natural gas, period.  This bill is not about safety of the process or environmental impact,” Stec maintained.  “To deny DEC the opportunity to review this and come up with a permitting process because we don’t like natural gas is arrogant and short-sighted.”

But Democrats have the Senate majority—indeed, a super-majority.  For reasons that may vary Senator to Senator, that super-majority chooses to ban the innovative end-run around New York’s—and maybe also Enfield’s—fracking ban without giving DEC scientists a first look-see.  Economic growth versus Green-favored environmentalism:  It was the fracking argument’s divide a decade ago.  It remains so today.

Fracking with carbon dioxide is an “extremely, extremely dangerous process that one has no business allowing in any part of New York,” Democrat Liz Kruger insisted.

Sen May: “Fracking is a quality of life nightmare.”

“Fracking is not just an environmental nightmare, but it is a quality of life nightmare,” the Syracuse area’s Rachel May declared.  May said she’s been to Pennsylvania.  Senator May saw the fracking trucks clog bridges and transform communities that were “rural, bucolic, and quiet places” into something far different.

Tom O’Mara would see prosperity where Rachel May sees blight.  “This is just one more block to doing things better because we want to get the perfect,” western Tompkins County’s former State Senator told allies and opponents.  “Well,” he added, “this utopian approach is a train wreck coming down the track.  It’s going to crush New York State.  It’s going to crush communities across New York State economically; devastating.”

O’Mara faulted those across the aisle for practicing beyond their pay grade.  “You’re all now the experts on whether this is feasible, safe or not,” he said.  “This is just so short-sighted and so emblematic of the whole energy plan that this state thinks they have.”