Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hope across the state line—the human story of hydrofracing

Marita Noon


"To me, the smoke coming out of those stacks is the most beautiful sight in the world. It means there is progress being made somewhere. Somewhere, some place, someone is making progress. If there is no smoke coming out, we look at it as trouble." Joe Bulich, third generation farmer in New York's Hudson Valley, recounted the words his father Frank Bulich said in response to a question from a National Geographic reporter regarding the cement plants that could be seen on the river. She viewed them as an eyesore, Joe's father had a different perspective. Reflecting on that conversation from the mid 90s, Joe says, "That's why we are where we're at."


Today, the people, who think of themselves as progressives, are actually against progress.


Joe knows what he is talking about. His grandfather came to America from Croatia. He worked in the cement plants that used to line the Hudson River. From that hard work, Joe's grandfather was able to give his family a start; they were able to purchase and own land and develop that land in agriculture. The family farmed mushrooms; one of forty farms once in the area. Now, three generations later, the Bulich farm is the last commercial mushroom farm. Their mushrooms are sold throughout the state of New York—served in fine restaurants in the city.


The farm had a rough start as crop after crop failed. Joe's father Frank heard about a piece of equipment—a new innovation—that might save their farm. He was a young man when he went to Pennsylvania, bought a steam-generating vessel called a steam boiler, and ultimately grew the first successful crop. The Bulich family understands the value of new technology. It saved their farm.


Last year, Hank Ferris shut down his farm in the southern tier of New York. He reports that for the past few years, he's lost money left and right. He thought: "Someday things will get better." He is now hauling water for a gas company across the state line in Pennsylvania.


Julie Lewis and her husband raise free-range chickens. She also works as a photographer and a substitute teacher—and she serves as a local legislator. Her husband drives a gas truck in Pennsylvania. Even then, they are struggling to get by. Because of the presence of natural gas believed to be on their property, their taxes have gone up and their annual tax payments are now more than their mortgage. While speculation drove the price up, New York's drilling moratorium makes cashing in impossible. Her neighbors are in the same place. Julie says: "People feel hopeless."


Mark Galasso, Mayor of Cobleskill, NY, has a village full of people facing similar fates. He says, "There are no jobs. Home values are depressed; apartments are vacant; there is no core industry here anymore." New York farmers struggle with increased poverty and inability to lease their mineral rights. Stories like the Lewis' are common in Upstate New York where local governments face eminent bankruptcy—within the next 18-24 months. Mayor Galasso sees the economy collapsing around them. For example, he cites Schoharie County where the population has remained relatively stable, but enrollment in the schools has dropped 3% for each of the past 12 years—down an average of 35%. Without jobs, the high school graduates leave and don't come back. Without the young families, the economy can't grow. "People are literally going broke."


Like modern technology saved the Bulich farm a generation ago, modern technology—hydrofracing—could once again save family farms and the overall economic demise of Upstate New York. But the "progressives" are against it. Twenty years ago, the environmentalists shut down the cement plants. Regulatory pressure and zoning restrictions pushed out industry. New York's Hudson Valley has become a haven for the wealthy—they own vacation homes there. James Northrup who summers in Cooperstown, NY, is one such homeowner. Although he made his money in Texas oil, he says the oil and gas industry "will drive out good people."


In reality, the lack of industry is driving out good people like Julie Lewis and Hank Ferris who fear that the hoped for jobs and revenue may never come.


Because of one group of people making rules about how other people can use their own property, good people are being driven out. Many of them are now working across the state line in Pennsylvania.


When Greg Zyla, publisher of the Daily Review in Towanda, PA, moved to Bradford County, in 2008, the unemployment was 10%, now it is half that. Restaurants that looked like they couldn't last another month have spruced up and are hiring. Help wanted signs are everywhere; they are begging people to work there. Every kind of business is being impacted by the influx of new families coming into the area. All thanks to horizontal hydraulic fracturing—which is allowed in Pennsylvania.


In stark contrast to their counterparts across the state line, farmers in Pennsylvania are now able to invest in their farms, buy new equipment, and keep their families together. Dairy farmer James VanBlarcom smiles as he tells of his son coming back home to work on the farm. Reflecting on his good luck, he says: "Almost all my neighbors are in the same situation that we are. They have this windfall opportunity that came their way all of a sudden, out of the blue." He hesitates: "Out of the ground, I guess, is more like it."


This "windfall opportunity" is giving hope to the people of Northeast Pennsylvania. Delinquent taxes have dropped like a rock. Construction is booming. Farmers are able to guarantee survival of the family farm.


Steven Volker was out of work for a year—but he wanted to work. He'd built a house on a piece of the family farm, and he didn't want to have to leave. He is now a project manager in Tunkhannok, PA. Cousins Brandon and Cory Mesko didn't even know what a drilling rig looked like when they got hired to work on one. Cory has been able to pay off his college debts at a "crazy pace." He says: "It feels good to work hard."


When you hear people question the number of jobs that might be created by an energy project like the Keystone XL pipeline, remember the people who get the jobs—real people who benefit growing communities. "Nothing is without risk. Through appropriate regulation, not over regulation, benefits outweigh the risks. In an honest debate," says Mayor Galasso, "where both sides consider the risks and rewards, they realize domestic energy development is good for America"


For mushroom farmer Frank Bulich, hope was just across the state line. His daughter Karen Moreau, a property rights advocate, put these stories, in honor of her father's life, into a short film: The Empire State Divide. In it, Julie Lewis states: "The ability to lease your property means hope and opportunity; it means relief from debt."


Karen Moreau sums the story up with this thought: "There is something worse than not having money. There is something worse than not having a nice view. That is having no hope."


For the people of Upstate New York, they look across the state line, and they see hope—hope that the moratorium will be lifted and they, too, will realize a windfall opportunity coming their way, all of a sudden, out of the ground.


Somewhere, some place, someone is making progress.



The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations' combined efforts serve as America's voice for energy.