Op-ed column: Stewards of land should be wary of permitting gas drilling

The town of Sharon and village of Sharon Springs are now formulating policy for “new” kinds of energ

History has a way of repeating itself, because people don’t change much. Actions will be repeated, whether they worked or not. Fortunately, there is often a wise elder who remembers if it didn’t work, and why. But wise elders are, as a general rule, ignored — until too late.

The town of Sharon and village of Sharon Springs are now formulating policy for “new” kinds of energy — wind and natural gas — and impassioned advocates on both sides are presenting their points of view to the planning boards and other local officials.

Defining our use of the commons, those things owned and shared by all (like air, water and wild places) is part of our public trust, and good to do together. Cannibalizing and trashing the natural and cultural landscape should not be allowed.

It is the usual practice to require permits for changes in buildings and property within tax and land-use laws, so any new categories should be considered carefully. Permits are now described for the installation of individual wind turbines; they do not represent any invasive damage to the land or the community as a whole. That makes sense.

It is odd, therefore, that the signing of a lease for natural gas drilling does not require a permit for the signer, since it is certainly invasive, potentially and irreversibly damaging to the soil, air and water we all share, and certainly affects the tax base and land use designations already in place. One hopes this will be addressed.

After years of reading about the process of hydraulic fracturing used to drill for natural gas, several puzzling contradictions emerge. Without fail, there are accidents, faulty infrastructure, leaks in storage, damage to roads and aquifers, and general mayhem to the commons.

Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens (surely one of the more Dickensian names currently in the news — almost as evocative as John Wayne Bobbitt) has stated that he has drilled more than 100,000 wells and never had any problems with water. This is a startling claim indeed. However, the large number of documented leakages, spillages, explosions, cracked pipes and destroyed roads, fields and forests would seem to give us pause about Mr. Pickens’ statement. Gas industry claims for millions of dollars in state tax revenue and thousands of jobs are also questionable when one looks at actual facts.

Just what jobs are created when natural gas wells are drilled? In Pennsylvania, those who are prospering are the motels, restaurants and bars who care for the temporary workers. These laborers do not bring their families, but send wages home, and purchase only basic needs while working on the drilling projects. Rents go up, trucks crowd and stress country roads.

Local jobs? We can only speculate about these. Perhaps repairing roads, filtering creeks and ponds and water tables and wells? Or replanting the acres of forest cleared for the gas well platforms? Hauling bottled water to the home owners after their wells are polluted and aquifers destroyed? Packing the belongings of the residents when they finally have to leave, their farms useless without clean water and soil? Medical care? In the colorful advertisements, the new jobs are not specifically described.

Enclosing the Commons

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, England experienced a brief industrial agricultural revolution. What many historians label “capitalist agriculture” took form, with the exploitation of land and market resources and the acquisition of former public lands, called the commons, by a few favored individuals.

Before Henry Tudor, open fields and common pastures were the medieval norm. Peasants rented fields, pastured and farmed, and survived by hunting, raising their own food and selling the surplus. Then as king, Henry VII granted the large landowners a corporate monopoly that kept out new wool and meat producers and protected their markets; the result was huge profits.

The desire for even more profits led to the enclosure of the commons and higher rents, creating grave social problems. For the first time in English history, the crown was forced to regard the relief of the poor and unemployed as one of its functions.

The gap between the rich and the poor was enormous, and it worsened with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and the sale of these rich tracts to the same landlords. Their “energy and daring, combined with royal sale of resources and the absence of moral scruples, resulted in those qualities we associate with the capitalist entrepreneur of today.”

Once unfenced commons and open fields were now encircled by the green hedges of merry England, and the now familiar “stately homes,” often refurbished monastic houses, came into existence. These vast estates supported private armies and swarms of dependents and retainers to maintain their moated, walled enclaves.

Excluding the many

In modern terms, everything public was privatized for profit, and the corporate ownership and enclosure of the commons by the few excluded the many. In less than a century, thousands of British immigrants had sailed to the colonies — possibly seeking open commons in the New World? That worked well, for a while.

When our grandchildren look back at the results of our decision-making about allowing, regulating or banning gas drilling in New York state, I suspect they will have several things to say about us.

The first that comes to mind is: “What on earth were they thinking?”

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply