The ballad of Sean and Yoko: Anti-fracking, for renewables
The new Artists Against Fracking makes a compelling case against opening up New York state to natural gas drilling. It's fuzzier about the energy sources that can replace it. Renewables are great, but not yet ready to carry the full load.
Sean and Yoko in New York, with Ruffalo and Ingraffea waiting their turns. (Photos: Jim Motavalli)
I frequently deny it, but I’m a sucker for celebrities like everybody else, and there was Yoko Ono right in front of me, looking remarkably well-preserved, and right next to her son Sean, a combination of mom and dad in his beardy phase.
Just as you might expect, the female half of John and Yoko — who once took out full-page ads in the New York Times proclaiming “War is Over (If You Want It)” — is relentlessly positive in person, proclaiming, “Everything is beautiful, as long as we don’t destroy it. Eventually logic and love will overcome.”
She was talking about her little corner of Delaware County, New York, farm property she and Lennon bought before Sean was born. The family still owns it, and Sean says he and his neighbors were approached a few months ago about a plan to install a new gas pipeline — infrastructure for the hydraulic fracturing that could come to New York if the current moratorium is lifted and Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives the go-ahead, as expected, to drilling in certain designated areas that welcome the technology. The new Artists Against Fracking counts Sean and Yoko as principals, and celebrity members from Lady Gaga, Ringo and Paul McCartney to New York-based actor Mark Ruffalo (who was in attendance and has been passionately campaigning against fracking for years). That's him making a point at right, with Sean looking on.
Sean is clearly a quick study; he had the anti-fracking language down. Yoko offered more of an emotional response. Sean: “Fracking gas is not climate-friendly, because methane is more of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide [actually, 23 times more potent]. Releasing methane from shale rock would be critically dangerous for our planet.” Yoko: “Just say no to fracking, but say yes to life.”
For scientific credibility, Artists Against Fracking brought out Anthony Ingraffea, a civil engineering professor at Cornell. Ingraffea showed some horrifying videos of fracking wells leaking through supposedly impenetrable concrete barriers. “The industry’s own data shows it’s impossible to design any well so that it won’t leak,” Ingraffea said. “One in 20 fails.” That point was reinforced at the press conference by "Gasland" filmmaker Josh Fox, who showed excerpts from his new anti-fracking film with close-ups at industry documents admitting well failures. Here's a video of Ingraffea on the issues:
Artists Against Fracking has a one-size-fits-all substitute for natural gas: Renewable energy. “Today, Germany gets 20 percent of its energy from clean sources,” said Ruffalo. “The sun will power the world and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The world is watching New York now.” AFA has sought, and so far not gotten, an audience with Governor Cuomo.
Here’s where Artists Against Fracking and I have some differences. I managed to disrupt the proceedings with my usual aplomb by bringing up a few inconvenient facts. Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, and power plants running on it are often replacing coal, which is obtained by a practice even worse than fracking — mountaintop removal mining.
Wind and solar are indeed excellent energy sources: Upstate New York is already being massively developed for wind farms. But wind and solar are also intermittent, and difficult to rely on as primary sources of energy. And Germany and Denmark have gotten to 20 to 30 percent renewable use through massive national commitments that the U.S. is hardly likely to make in the current climate. In any case, both those countries are still fossil fuel dependent. Both Germany and Japan are also looking at phasing out nuclear power, which makes the search for primary energy sources even more imperative.
When I brought this up at the news conference, Sean intoned, “We’re against coal, too.” I’m sure Artists Against Fracking isn’t for cutting the tops off mountains, but if it’s going to convince Cuomo to keep the moratorium in place, the group will have to present a workable state energy plan that can get by, especially in the short term, without coal, natural gas or the likely loss of the Indian Point nuclear plant (which generates 30 percent of New York City’s electricity). Cuomo is “determined” to close the nuke, and he has an also-controversial plan to deliver power to the city from New Jersey via transmission lines under the Hudson.
It’s hard to argue in favor of tap water that catches on fire, and the industry’s response from current spokesman Tom Ridge — that such flammability is from naturally occurring methane and not linked to fracking — strains credibility. Natural gas drillers are going to have to do better in New York than they have in Pennsylvania.
And, yes, releasing methane is a climate aggravator, but burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal. What’s that mean? Energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S., measured from January to March, are the lowest for any quarter since 1992, according to federal sources. The reasons cited are a warm winter, reduced gasoline demand and, according to the New York Times, “a drop in coal-fired electricity generation because of historically low natural gas prices.”
Natural gas is also an increasingly viable (because of those low prices) substitute for gasoline or diesel in trucking. Something like 30 percent of new garbage trucks run on it, and it's getting a serious look for long-haul freight. (Frito-Lay is converting its entire fleet.) This is good news for emissions, because both nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide are significantly reduced, as are (yes) greenhouse gas emissions.
See, this energy stuff is complicated, isn’t it? Sure, Yoko, I want everything to be beautiful, too. I want war to be over. I wish I had a magic wand to make it so. In the real world, the lights stay on because something’s probably burning somewhere.
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