Just days ago, General Electric's bulldozers entered a third year of around-the-clock dredging along New York's Hudson River, where the energy giant is still working to undo the contamination it created during the Seventies. During that time, GE dumped toxins from two of its manufacturing plants into the water, poisoning the striped bass and killing commercial fishing in the Upper Hudson. GE has since paid the EPA millions for the damage, and the company now estimates that its cleanup effort will finish by 2018.
The dumping was dirty work, but it was also legal. Hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking," a drilling method that ruptures the bedrock a mile below and forces natural gas to the surface with a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals linked to cancer – remains profitable and free from many restrictions in more than 30 states including Texas, its birthplace. With lawmakers now reviewing a bill that would allow fracking in New York state, local musicians including Natalie Merchant, Citizen Cope, Joan Osborne and Tracy Bonham will join the New Yorkers Against Fracking rally and concert in Albany on Tuesday, to encourage Governor Andrew Cuomo to maintain the state's ban.
"I think a lot of people are lulled into this false sense of security that because there's a moratorium, good sense is going to prevail," Merchant, a lifelong rural New Yorker, told Rolling Stone.
The event will kick off with a late-afternoon rally on the West Capitol Lawn, to be followed by a concert at 7:00 p.m. at the Egg Empire State Plaza. Additional supporters include actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo, jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello and the Felice Brothers.
Parts of New York State sit above the Marcellus Shale, a natural-gas goldmine that also encompasses neighboring Pennsylvania and is considered prime real estate for legal fracking. "In 10 years, the Marcellus is likely to become the most productive natural gas field in the world," Chesapeake Energy's Aubrey McClendon told Rolling Stone earlier this year.
In May, President Obama proposed that gas companies should reveal which chemicals they use when fracking on federal land. This type of drilling happens more often on private property, however, where big drillers like Chesapeake aren't required to disclose this information. Scientists have concluded that in some cases, chemicals including benzene cause childhood leukemia, while methane gas from fracking has been blamed for contaminating groundwater.
Though gas companies and their opponents disagree on fracking's effects, no one denies its ability to make money. Tycoons like T. Boone Pickens have long pushed for a natural-gas energy policy over one based on foreign oil dependence. Last week in a CNBC interview, Pickens condemned Washington, D.C. as "a piece of shit" for failing to embrace widespread fracking. A recent Fortune cover story assigned the Viagra metaphor to fracking, suggesting it was the boost the economy needs to fast-track job creation. Mitt Romney has endorsed it, and even the EPA has called the Marcellus Shale "commercially viable." Its website reads, "Natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future."
The Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch found that fracking, if permitted in New York, will create only 0.026 percent more jobs, and out-of-state workers would likely claim most of those. Fortune, however, predicts an increase of 200,000 jobs in the areas of steelmaking for wells and exporting natural gas to other countries, which would guarantee record profits for companies like Exxon.
Osborne, who owns a house on a farm in the Catskills above the Marcellus, says that rural families will pay the price if and when big drillers erect rigs in their neighborhoods. Fracking opponents argue that trucks carrying chemicals will overwhelm traffic, hauling loads of wastewater to storage facilities that dwarf every house on the block. Tankers could overturn and spill. Wells could leak. Tap water could be rendered undrinkable.
"That really gets to me emotionally, thinking about my daughter and trying to raise her in a situation like this," Osbourne tells Rolling Stone. "They get these tiny, little fines which are like a little bitty slap on the wrist, and it doesn't mean anything to their bottom line, so there's really very little incentive for them to care about whether people's water is being poisoned or not."
Years ago, when Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 20, the now-chair of New Yorkers Against Fracking couldn't tell doctors which chemicals she'd been exposed to as a child in what she called her "highly industrialized" hometown. A previous lack of disclosure laws had prevented access to to such details. Now a cancer survivor, ecologist and activist, Steingraber demands alternatives to the drilling activity allowed throughout most of America.
"As an adult, I'm not interested in kicking the addiction on fossil fuels down the road so that my children have to deal with the transition to renewables," she said. "Gas is actually an obstacle, not a bridge, to renewable energy."
"No amount of regulation is going to make this safe," adds Merchant, who wrote a song about fracking that she'll perform at Tuesday's event. Its working title: "Texas."