Editorial: Energetic encounters

Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston Times.

Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston Times.

So, I’m with my fiancée at the home show in Lagrange on Sunday, and we’re talking with someone about solar panels. She’s redoing her house and is interested in solar because a.) she’s a good person and conscientious about the environment and b.) she heats with electricity — not by choice, that’s just how the house was set up — so anything that might shave some numbers off ye olde Central Hudson bill is something we’re interested in. The three of us have a brief discussion about the practicalities and the finances; exposure to sunlight, tax credits, buy vs. lease, figuring out how long it would take for an investment in solar to pay for itself.

As we’re walking away from the solar booth to go look at something else, I say to her that it will probably make sense to lay out some money now in return for diminished electricity bills down the line. “That is,” I note, “unless the price of electricity goes down.”

So, it’s a Tuesday at the County Office Building, and up on the sixth floor are gathered numerous public officials and pretty much the entire cohort of Ulster’s environmental activists, plus Natalie Merchant. Led by the beloved Maurice Hinchey, they are there to announce the formation of Hudson Valley United Against Fracking. The name speaks for itself; those on hand Tuesday, backed by a very spiffy new logo based on the design for the new Tappan Zee bridge, urged the public to urge Gov. Cuomo to forbid the procedure. (If you haven’t heard, it involves squirting water and various chemicals into the ground to free up natural gas deposits trapped in shale; it’s foes say squirting various chemicals into the ground is bad for the environment. But you’ve probably heard by now.) The governor has been mulling it over for a long time and is still mulling; if his ex-brother-in-law is to be believed, Cuomo’s waiting for a Pennsylvania study on the health effects of fracking on those who live near the gas wells before he makes his final call. The activists on the sixth floor believe that if New Yorkers continue to put pressure on Cuomo, he will buck the allure of lots and lots of fracking-related money coming in, and if they put pressure on the state Senate, they will pass the same two-year moratorium the Assembly did.

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So, parallel to all this is talk, largely in breathless, rapturous tones, about something called “the shale gas boom.” According to Fareed Zakaria and others, this boom is transforming the energy world: The U.S. will within a few years the world’s largest EXPORTER of fossil-fuel energy and abundant natural gas will lower energy prices both here and abroad — this is what I was thinking about at the home show, especially since one of the Roseton power plants is reportedly being refitted to burn natural gas. Natural gas puts out less greenhouse gas than coal and we’ll finally be able to tell countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, with which we have been locked in a need-hate relationship for decades, where to get off. We’ll be able to severely undercut Russia’s natural gas prices, thus allowing our friends in Europe to tell that Putin SOB where he can get off. All of this is disputed, by the way. Natural gas prices are not as low as predicted and some scientists dispute whether natural gas is better for global warming than other fossil fuels. But, energy independence! Great, right? Where is all this shale gas coming from? Well, umm, uh … fracking.

So, fracking is a fact in America. Go on the Internet and look up that picture of North Dakota at night, and keep in mind that state has the lowest unemployment in the country. While it may not be the radically transformative thing it’s currently being talked up to be, shale gas is happening, has been happening and will continue to happen.

But should it be happening and should it happen here? There’s a larger issue to consider, one that steels the backbones of anti-frackers and makes them believe there’s a huge moral imperative to stopping it here in New York, even at the cost of millions to the state’s economy. That is, the opening of a new source of greenhouse-gas producing energy is unacceptable because it inexcusably delays the spread of renewable and clean energy sources.

I’ve in this space in the past written, at times quite dramatically, about the threat global warming poses to the planet as a whole, and we’ve reported on how climate change is going to affect, not for the good, how things are done here in Kingston. But this is a big thing: At no time in recorded history has there been a paradigm shift in energy usage caused by voluntary change; either fuel sources have run out (picture an Anasazi person cutting down the last pine tree in New Mexico way back when) or a new fuel has become cheaper and more practical to use than the old (people knew about steam power for centuries but it wasn’t until James Watt made it easy that it took hold and changed everything).

But we as a species have never faced this kind of situation before, with maybe a chance to control our own destiny, or at least have a fighting chance to keep our planet more or less the way we’ve always known it. It could well be that if the governor decides to keep fracking out, New York will pass up a lot of money. But it could also be that that refusal starts a new way of looking at how we treat the environment and how we make our priorities. It’s not known if Margaret Mead ever said this: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It is known that she said this: “No society has ever yet been able to handle the temptations of technology to mastery, to waste, to exuberance, to exploration and exploitation. We have to learn to cherish this earth and cherish it as something that’s fragile, that’s only one, it’s all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology.”

Choose wisely, Gov. Cuomo.

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