No Place Like Dome?

Budget, air conditioning (?) play role in EPA decision to move Binghamton HF forum to Syracuse – but tight logistics force agency to postpone event ‘til next month

Two county lines and a 73-mile stretch of Interstate 81 are all that separate Binghamton from Syracuse, N.Y. But judging by the reaction lodged by anti-Marcellus activists upon hearing news of EPA’s change of venue for its upcoming forum on hydraulic fracturing, you would’ve thought the agency was trying to move the thing instead to the Syracuse, Sicily.

Now comes word that the forum itself will need to be rescheduled for sometime in September – a public safety decision announced today after the hosts consulted with local police and county officials. Of course, if you thought anti-energy activists were angry about the change of venue for the event before, imagine what they’ll be saying today about its outright postponement. Actually, here’s an early preview:

“EPA has been bought and paid for!” – declared one commenter on the website of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin this morning. “[F]or months this was the location, as far as i’m [sic.] concerned the gas companies pulled this stunt with a pay-off to someone!” Actually, the real story here appears to be about a pay-off that didn’t quite happen – specifically, a payment from EPA to Binghamton University to rent the space needed to host the forum in the first place.

According to local media, EPA and BU originally agreed to (but never signed a contract stipulating) a $6,000 hosting fee – based on an assumption that several hundred folks, at most a thousand or two, would be coming. Then came news that 8,000 people were planning to attend – along with a full-slate of musical acts, jugglers, a couple face-painters, and a petting zoo.

Again, according to reports, all BU did was ask EPA for some extra funds to handle the logistics associated with providing a safe and civil atmosphere in which the forum could take place. EPA, for its part, balked. Spend $1.9 million on the first phase of the second study we’ve done on hydraulic fracturing in the past 70 months? No problem, says EPA. Fork over a couple grand extra to ensure we’ve got enough Job-Johnnies available on-site in Binghamton? That’s a bridge too far.

Of course, money aside, the other issue that had anti-Marcellus activists in an absolute panic was a report surfacing last week (most prominently in the Press & Sun-Bulletin) indicating the forum might be held in a venue without a sufficient air-conditioning system in place. Here’s an excerpt from the call-to-action thatKatherine Nadeau of the pressure group Environmental Advocates of New York sent around to her followers on Aug. 6:

[T]he university is trying to move the hearing to an un-air conditioned, acoustically-impossible gym. … You should call [BU] President McGraw at 607-777-xxxx.  … [Tell him that] due to the size of the crowd, the age diversity (children and seniors) and the likelihood that it will be a very hot day, holding the hearing in an air-conditioned venue is critical.

Funny thing about air-conditioning in New York – it’s powered by electricity, nearly a third of which in the state is derived directly from clean-burning natural gas. And according to the friendly dispatcher with whom we spoke at NYSEG (the major Southern Tier utility), a larger share of Binghamton’s electricity comes from natural gas than the average community in the state. So again: Activists oppose natural gas and the means for producing it. But they support the electricity derived from natural gas that makes air-conditioning possible. So in other words: They oppose being denied the latter, especially if it impacts their level of comfort in protesting the former. Got it?

Of course, lost in the recriminations over the decision to move the EPA forum from Binghamton to Syracuse – and then today’s news, to move the event itself to the month of September – is the broader realization that this “public information session,” as the agency calls it, won’t play a role in determining the scope and scale of EPA’s future study on the safety and performance of hydraulic fracturing – the second such study (as we mentioned) that EPA is doing on this general subject in the past six years.

Those decisions were made late last year by Congress, and confirmed earlier this year by the agency’sScience Advisory Board – instructing EPA to study the relationship between the use of fracturing technology and the safety and quality of underground sources of drinking water. The good news is that the science on this phenomenon is about as straightforward as it gets – which is why even EPA has been forced to admit (repeatedly) that not a single case of groundwater contamination has ever been tied to hydraulic fracturing in the 60 years it’s been in use.

Unfortunately, if the previous three “public information sessions” over which presided EPA this summer are any indication, the event in Syracuse next month won’t focus all that much on the factual history associated with hydraulic fracturing’s safe and efficient use in New York State over the past half-century. Nor will the panels or participants spend much time considering the enormous job-creating and broader economic potential that responsible Marcellus exploration can leverage for a state with 900,000 residents on the unemployment rolls and a $9 billion gap in the budget.

No, it probably won’t have much of that. But according to one invite we received in the (electronic) mail, there will be plenty of bands on hand — The Sim Redmond Band, the Tioga County Heymakers, and a group called “Sophistafunk,” just to name a few. And who knows? Maybe these guys feel the same way about the promise and potential of clean-burning natural gas for New York as we do (their guitars aren’t powered by wind, after all).

Guess we’ll eventually have the opportunity to find out. Just have to wait ‘til September to do it.

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