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Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon Unite Artists Against Fracking in New York

Musicians urge Governor Cuomo not to reverse the state ban on hyraulic fracturing

August 29, 2012 6:20 PM ET
Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono
Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

During the early 1970s, before Sean Lennon was born to John and Yoko, the couple bought a farm in Delaware County, three hours from their home at the Dakota in New York City. As a toddler, Sean remembers one of the goats chewing on his blue jeans. Today, that property near the Catskills belongs to him and sits within potential drilling territory above the sprawling Marcellus Shale, where Governor Andrew Cuomo might reverse the state's ban on hydraulic fracturing – known as "fracking" – for natural gas.

Ono and Lennon, who founded Artists Against Fracking in July, gathered the coalition on Wednesday at New York's Paley Center for Media and called on Governor Cuomo to discuss developing renewable alternatives to wells, some of which have been linked to leaking methane into the groundwater.

"I feel like the end result of wanting to make profits through fossil fuels and drilling for oil and gas is that you overlook individual people and small-town farmers," Lennon told Rolling Stone after the event. "That's what's happening in New York right now: they're promising that we won't drill near the reservoirs that supply Manhattan, but that basically means that places that are less populated are somehow less important."

"New York City's going to suffer. They're not thinking about that," Ono added. "The thing is, the governor is intelligent enough to know that he doesn't want to side with very unpopular people who are doing terrible things for money."

Fracking involves the post-drilling process of blasting a high-pressure mix of sand, water and chemicals deep into the ground to bring shale gas to the surface. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has studied its impact for the last four years, and a vote to open parts of the state to fracking could happen when the legislature reconvenes in January.

"Our review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing is continuing and no decisions have been made," a DEC representative wrote in an email, adding that its four-year-long study could be completed this year and that the department "continues to focus on responding to the more than 80,000 comments we received on the draft."

artists against fracking
Mark Ruffalo speaks during a press conference to launch the Artists Against Fracking Coalition in New York.
Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

"I hear they're very busy and they want to start talking to us," said actor Mark Ruffalo, who attended the Artists Against Fracking event and told Rolling Stone that he contacted Cuomo last month. "I'm confident that the governor's going to see the light in this, but if he doesn't, he's gonna have a headache. I'd be surprised if you see anything come out of it before the elections, to be honest with you."

Most states that allow fracking don't require drillers to detail the chemicals they blast into the bedrock to harvest natural gas – such a recipe is often considered a "trade secret." Once a landowner signs his lease over to a gas company – and unless a doctor deems that a medical emergency exists – that trade secret remains sealed. Months ago, President Obama called on companies to disclose the chemicals they pump into federal land, but most fracking falls within private property.

Big players with their eye on fracking in New York range from Aubrey McClendon at Chesapeake Energy to ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerman, and from Chevron's John Watson to Trevor Rees-Jones of Chief Oil and Gas. All have shelled out contributions to drilling advocate Mitt Romney, the super PACs that support him or the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Uncovering their list of fracking chemicals has led to many dead ends, Assemblywoman Sandra Galef told Rolling Stone. Most representatives referred her to fracfocus.org, which calls itself "a voluntary registry website that allows the public to find a well and the chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process."

Earlier this year, Galef traveled to parts of Pennsylvania to meet with fracking opponents and those who surrendered their mortgages to drillers. "I think the lure of the money up front is probably what gets people to sign on," she said. "There are banks that don't want to sell the property because somebody else owns the drilling rights. You could buy a house and, any day, somebody can come in and say, 'Well, I'm going to drill on your property.'"

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg lauded fracking and proposed tighter state regulation. "We can frack safely if we frack sensibly," he wrote. Lennon countered with his own column in The New York Times this week, calling fracking "dirty energy" that "will render the climate unlivable."

"This is not going to bring jobs to America and save our economy," Lennon told reporters on Wednesday. "Once they destroy one community, they move on to the next."

In New York, while the State Labor Department finds that 100,000 more people are working than in July 2011, those counties with the highest unemployment rates sit outside the Marcellus Shale. The data suggests that fracking-related jobs – assuming Cuomo lifts the state's ban – would not directly help the counties that most need them.

Meanwhile, Ono and Lennon confirmed they will begin work at the end of the year on Ono's first album for Chimera Music since 2009. "It's going to happen again, yes," she said.

"Her 80th birthday's in February, so we're gonna have a little 80th birthday party and a record, and it will be fun," Lennon added.

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