Appalachian Basin

A Conflict of Visions

I recently received the following letter from a long-time resident of the Upper Delaware River valley, who wishes to remain anonymous.  She is a retired local school teacher with a farm background.  It illustrates the cultural and political dynamic that underlies so much of the natural gas debate in our region and is well worth reading for those who want to understand what is happening.  It’s all about a conflict of visions (also the title of a great book by economist and political columnist Thomas Sowell, one of my heroes).

No generalization or profile holds true one hundred percent of the time.  Notwithstanding this, anyone attending any meeting regarding natural gas can typically, at a glance, find it easy to distinguish between those in favor and those opposed.  The crowd is noticeably divided between vintage hippies and L.L. Bean/Eddie Bauer types on one side and those in denim, Dickies, or camo on the other.

Sports enthusiasts might assess the situation as the home team, where everyone knows everyone, and the away team.  Who are they and where did they come from?  Others choose to divide the group on the basis of conscience, holding up themselves and others opposed to gas drilling as “environmentalists” with a supposedly superior sense of stewardship for our land and water.  But, if those who oppose drilling are the environmentalists, what does that make those of us who have been good stewards of the land for generations?  Why is the Upper Delaware so pristine in the first place and thus the focal point of so much controversy?

Many people who have moved into this area either naturally blend in with the existing culture of the community or have chosen to blend in.  Not only have they become an integral part of the community, but the community has welcomed them with open arms. Others . . . not so much. The natural gas debate has brought into focus this so-called elephant in the room, the division that has always been here, but for the most part has been ignored.

The visions of the two groups in this area are separated by a wide expanse, and the vision of one group appears to be an intrusion on the vision of the other.  Those who have made their living elsewhere typically come here to have a second home, an acre or two getaway, that serves as “an island of serenity” for them.  The harvesting of natural gas is a threat to their vision.

On the other hand, part of the vision of those who favor responsible drilling is to keep the family farm, decrease or eliminate debt, and maintain the long term integrity of the land, the very thing that makes this area such a desirable commodity in the first place.  Certainly, that aspect can be interrupted, but it will be interrupted temporarily, whereas the impact of the vision of the former group will be permanent.  Land under houses and blacktop will never be reclaimed.  The most important part of the vision for those favoring responsible drilling is ensuring a sustainable society that will keep the next generation here and gainfully employed.

Those who oppose drilling for natural gas often do so because they are openly hostile tom the continued use of fossil fuels.  They employ the battle cry of “sustainable energy,” the magic bullets being wind and solar. But, huge wind turbines do not spring up overnight like mighty mushrooms.  There will be truck traffic and land disturbance with them as well.  Four hundred foot plus windmills atop a ridge almost look scenic against a deep blue sky, but have you ever seen hundreds of them dotting thousands of acres of farmland?  Itʼs not necessarily a pretty sight nor is it without controversy.  In Hungary, where this is happening, problems are arising regarding ownership of the air. When a windmill is placed in front of another windmill, it disrupts the airflow to the first windmill.  Also, there are complaints about the steady whooshing noise that they make.

Moreover, that controversy has erupted regionally as well. In a press release from four years ago, the Alliance for Bovina in next door Delaware County, New York State read, “In an historic vote on March 13, 2007, after months of controversy and research, the Bovina Town Board banned wind turbines from this scenic Catskill town. Bovina is the first town in the Catskills to take a clear position against industrial wind development. The Bovina vote follows a twelve month moratorium during which residents made their views known to town officials through open meetings sponsored by the board, hundreds of letters, a town survey, a petition, and a poll sponsored by industrial wind opponents. . . There were strong concerns about views, health, safety, noise, and property values.” Sound familiar? Oh, yeah, thatʼs exactly what Josh Fox said about natural gas in a recent interview with Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC News.

You see, the battle isn’t about natural gas any more than its about nuclear, oil, windmills, other renewables or the environment.  It’s about a serious conflict of visions between those who want a future for this region that includes the welfare of those who live here and those who would instead consign it to pastoral poverty for the sake of their own enjoyment.  It won’t be easily resolved because the divide between these two visions is both deep and wide, not unlike the Delaware River itself in places.

There’s not much to add is there? It reminds me of a line from that famous autobiography, Witness, in which the author, Whittaker Chambers, discusses “the jagged fissure … between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think and speak for them.  That, too, is a big part of the conflict of visions that undergirds our natural gas debate.


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