Debate on hydrofracking sees high turnout, elicits emotions from participants

Svitlana Lymar | Staff photographer

Paul Gallay, president of the Hudson Riverkeeper who is against hydrofracking, argues the practice is unsafe — mainly because of the adverse health effects it causes.

The momentum seemed to permanently flip against the side in favor of hydrofracking when a man from the audience asked a simple question: Besides the immediate economic benefit, why would you drill?

“Why would we drill?” said Ed Hinchey, a licensed professional geologist and independent consultant as an environmental scientist. “So we can live. So we can light this hall. So we can drive here to this meeting, so democracy can work. How would we have this meeting if we couldn’t get here?”

After the man clarified that he specifically meant why use hydrofracking to extract natural gas, Hinchey then said it’s because that’s how you get the resource.

“There are other ways to access natural gas,” the man said, to a mix of “oohs” and whispers from the crowd.

That was only one moment of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute’s debate, “This Assembly Believes Hyrofracking Does More Harm Than Good,” which took place at 7 p.m. Friday in a packed Maxwell Auditorium.

Both sides thoroughly presented their case on natural gas hydrofracking — a process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water and additives deep into the ground to break up rock and more easily extract the resource.

An entrance vote, which attendees took at the event and that was revealed later, showed 135 people were in favor of that statement, 32 were against it and seven were undecided.

By the end of the night, 146 people agreed that hydrofracking does more harm than good, 22 were against it and three were undecided.

The debate featured Robert Howarth, chair of the SCOPE International Biofuels Project and Cornell University professor, and Paul Gallay, president of the Hudson Riverkeeper on the affirmative side. Tim Whitesell, supervisor of the Town of Binghamton and president of the New York Association of Towns, joined Hinchey on the negative side.

The side that argued hydrofracking was more harmful than good focused on the adverse environmental and public health effects they said were related to the practice.

Howarth said though the practicing of hydrofracking isn’t new, doing it at high-volumes with directional drilling only developed in the last decade.

He emphasized that in the hydrofracking process, 1 million gallons of the fluid used in it — or 20 percent — comes back to the surface and some then makes its way to municipal wastewater treatment plants. He described shale gas as an “extreme energy technology,” noting it increases the amount of chemical radon in the environment along with other materials by burning it.

Gallay, his debate partner, said the practice is poorly regulated and unsafe. A study from Duke University found drinking supplies within 3,000 feet of wells contain 17 percent more methane — and this can be traced back to hydrofracking, he said.

Hinchey said with more than 100,000 wells drilled in the United States, the practice can be done safely. He focused heavily on the detrimental effects of coal burning, which natural gas could replace, saying soot from coal combustion causes 13,000 to 30,000 premature deaths per year.

Whitesell, the other member of the side favoring hydrofracking, discussed the economic benefits and tax relief that hydrofracking could provide to towns such as Binghamton, and said this is already being seen in Pennsylvania.

During the rebuttals, the side favoring hydrofracking often accused the side against it of taking numbers and statistics out of context. But in the question section of the event, both Hinchey and Whitesell said they would change their position if the “science was settled.”

“The beauty of science is that it’s never settled,” Hinchey said, eliciting a large response and some laughs from the crowd. “But absolutely, if ever evidence appears convincing me there was a greater threat to the environment and to human health from hydraulic fracturing, I would absolutely change my mind,” he added.

In closing, Gallay said the side in favor of hydrofracking’s statements validated his position, adding there’s so much to discredit to believe it’s a safe practice.

Said Gallay: “You have to ignore so many facts to come down on the side of hydrofracking.”


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