What 204,000 Comments Say About Fracking

FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zel
FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa. It sounds like a free-market success story: a new gas drilling boom driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which delivers a vast new source of cheap energy without the government subsidies that solar and wind power demand. But men who helped pioneer fracking recall a different story. From the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the northeast, the U.S. Department of Energy contributed more than $100 million in direct federal research to help develop fracking, and Congress added $10 billion in tax breaks. Now, some of the biggest supporters of shale gas say the government should continue to back renewable energy research - for decades, if need be - to deliver future breakthroughs in that field. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The fight over fracking has moved from an environmental and economic issue to a more fundamental question of democracy. On one side is broad public opposition to a practice that has known environmental and health consequences. On the other side are big corporate interests that make a fortune off of fracking, and in turn, invest heavily in political campaigns to protect their ability to frack. How the fracking issue gets decided will be an indication of whether we still have functioning independent democratic institutions or whether money really has taken over our system.

On the last day of the public comment period, advocates delivered 204,000 comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation in opposition to allowing fracking in New York State. The volume of comments delivered last week is unprecedented and dwarfs the last comment period, which still attracted over 60,000 comments. The level of comments submitted is particularly impressive given that the comment period was only open for 30 days, which included the holiday period.

In fact, the short comment period is just one of many missteps in the state's effort to evaluate and regulate fracking. As highlighted by Paul Gallay, the whole way the state has addressed the issue is fatally flawed and the only way to fix it is to ban fracking or extend the existing moratorium on the practice.

On the national level, the EPA is failing to live up to its primary objective: protecting the environment. The agency dropped an investigation into methane-contaminated drinking water supplies near natural gas wells in Texas to keep the drilling company happy. It is delaying releasing a report on groundwater pollution in a Wyoming gas field, even though the state did not ask for, nor does it want, the delay. The agency's recent updates to air pollution standards for the oil and gas industry left 95 percent of methane emissions unregulated, a standard so lax that it prompted a lawsuit from seven attorneys general led by New York State's Eric Schneiderman.

Are these agencies' actions in response to monied interests setting the political agenda? To ensure their interests are advanced, the oil and gas industry invests substantially in political campaigns. Natural gas interests spent more than $747 million on federal campaign contributions and lobbying over a 10-year campaign from 2001-2011. A recent report from Common Cause New York found that in the 2012 election cycle, pro-fracking interests donated nearly $400,000 to candidates for state legislature and county executive in New York's Southern Tier.

The story is the same in other fracking states. In Pennsylvania, political donations from the energy sector increased from $4 million in 2008 to $7.5 million in 2010, the exact time that the fracking industry started to take off in the state. Since 2001, Ohio Governor Kasich received more than twice as much money from fossil fuel interests as any other state office holder. While these sums may seem like a lot of money to you or me, it is a fraction of the billions of dollars in profit the industry makes every year. This money not only buys access to decision makers, it also allows the industry to set the political agenda.

At some point, the DEC will have to make a decision on whether to allow fracking and the EPA will have to address the environmental consequences of the practice. How they decide these issues will indicate whether or not our institutions are still independent and accountable to our democracy. If the DEC decides to allow fracking, it will go against the hundreds of thousands of people who wrote in opposition, the majority of Upstate New Yorkers who oppose it, and directly against the wishes of local municipalities. At least 100 municipalities in New York have banned fracking with the list continuing to expand, including Marcellus and Otisco in just the last week. If the EPA continues to punt its responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the industry and continues to ignore the environmental consequences fracking causes, it will be a fundamental betrayal of its mission.

We are reaching a crossroads and the legitimacy of our institutions is at risk.