September 30, 2012

Fracking Debate at Yale Inspires Students to Face up to the Fossil Fuel Industry

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People are catching on to the debate over fracking in New York State. They are catching on so much so that over 200 of them were crammed into Burke Auditorium in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; in Connecticut, a state significantly removed from projected drilling and wastewater disposal sites. People crowded the aisles, sat on windowsills, and leaned against walls. A live stream was made available for hundreds of others, and is still available online.

The debate was broadly titled “Hydraulic Fracturing: Bridge to a Clean Energy Future?”, but upstate New York was clearly the main region of discussion. On one side was Bill McKibben of 350.org, who pushed the environment/climate argument against fracking, while recognizing that other arguments abound. His opponent, former Shell Energy president John Hofmeister, conceded that fracking is dirty but necessary and the highly complex practice (which he compared to heart surgery) is being improved continually. In the middle of the spectrum were Sheila Olmstead, a fellow at Resources for the Future, and James Saiers, a professor of hydrology and chemical engineering at the Yale Engineering School. Their arguments at times leaned towards McKibben’s, by acknowledging the health and social impacts of fracking, but never far enough to admit that fracking is inherently unsafe and therefore unviable. Saiers predicted that the moratorium will be lifted in New York and fracking will hit the state.

A couple lively exchanges of rhetoric between McKibben and Hofmeister roused the audience. In response to the title question, the former Shell exec said that hydrofracking is not a bridge, but  “a highway to the future”. McKibben eloquently capitalized on that statement retorting: “hydrofracking is a rickety pier out into the lake of hydrocarbons”.

Later on, Hofmeister gave an impassioned speech condemning private campaign donations and declaring that Shell never has and never will contribute to political campaigns. He got an impressive round of applause from the audience, but his smugness disappeared when McKibben pointedly asked if Shell is a member of the Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know”, Hofmeister responded after an awkward pause, “We were when I was president.” McKibben went on to explain that the Chamber of Commerce is the largest lobbying group in Congress.

Having watched Bill speak many times before, I couldn’t help but pick up on a melancholy tone in his voice. He’s been saying the same things since 1989 – that we need to start acting soon on the climate crisis because the consequences will be extreme – and twenty-three years later, with the evidence of climate change affronting us every day, we’re still battling bureaucrats and plutocrats in basic defense of the planet. In Albany, Governor Cuomo has been trying hard to show he’ll follow the path of money, repeatedly refusing over the last four years to listen to the demands of a significant percentage of New York residents who oppose hydrofracking. However, with increasingly frequent and innovative actions against fracking, like Don’t Frack New York and a shutdown of Schlumberger in August, we’re finally seeing a change in Cuomo. Today, the New York Times reports that the fracking process in New York will likely be delayed another year, until the completion of another review, including a public comment period.

This is huge news for the movement.

Bill McKibben needn't be quite so grim. The news is looking up, and though we haven't won yet, we can be grateful for the vibrant spirit of solidarity present on campus after the panel and a speech Bill gave later that evening calling for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. He inspired and enlightened a diverse cross-section of the Yale student body, convincing me that whether or not we are resting on the Marcellus shale, college students across the United States are getting fired up and ready to face up to the fossil fuel industry in all its manifestations. We won’t stop until they stop.

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