By Grady Hawkins

Dozens of environmentalist and concerned citizens braved temperatures in the teens Thursday afternoon to demonstrate against the controversial drilling technology known as

Hydraulic fracturing. Lafayette square was the scene and national Fuel Gas Company was the focus of attention at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon as downtown commuters began heading home.

There is much at stake: thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in desperately needed revenue for cash-strapped families and governments across the Empire State. Balanced against this is a price that may be too high to pay. The destruction of thousands of acres of forest and the pollution of pristine water sources and aquifers could be the result. The source of this bonanza is trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, trapped a mile below the surface inside the massive Marcellus Shale.  This middle-Devonian formation covers most of Pennsylvania and western New York.

The problem is how to get the gas to the market. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is at the center of what is becoming the most volatile issue in years. And the issue is far from being resolved. The New York State legislature has voted for a moratorium on new drilling until May of 2011. As we go to press, Governor Patterson has yet to sign the bill.

The group of protesters is undeterred by the bitter cold and cutting wind. They brandish signs and chant in unison, “no fracking way, no fracking way.”  The issue to them is quite simple. Corporate America is once again going to ignore the needs of ordinary people in a relentless pursuit of profit. National Fuel is by far the major player, holding at least 715,000 acres and thousands of drilling rigs. The company stands to gain millions in new

Profits with no thought to potential corporate environmental collateral damage.

Forces on both sides of this issue are marshalling their maximum effort.

Activist Dan Tritto knows full well what they are up against, the usual money, power and politicians. He is confident none the less. “We got the numbers, we got the people,” He tells me.

He yells a greeting to the unknown people behind the windows on the second floor of National Fuel. They are video taping the protest. He is undeterred.

Albert Brown, organizer with Frack Action Buffalo, acknowledged the pressure being put on Governor Patterson. If the governor fails to sign the moratorium bill, he feels the resulting publicity and backlash will help alert the people to potential danger of fracking.

Brown is also concerned that National Fuel will expand drilling into the southern tier here in western New York

But in an article in The Buffalo News, National Fuel spokeswoman Karen Merkel sais “National Fuel has no plans to pursue Marcellus Shale drilling in New York State,,,”

But later on in the same article it says “Industry officials said drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which extends into the Southern Tier of New York, could produce enough gas to last 20 to 100 years…and bring an economic boon to a region that has been struggling economically for decades.”

Incentive enough for National Fuel to change its plans? Perhaps.

The Independent Gas and Oil Association of New York has not been idle. In November it released a statement against the moratorium. Executive Director Brad Gill declared “This Bill is a job killer, an upstate business killer and potentially a business killer.” The IOGA referred to the more than 300 businesses and over 5,000 Industry employees in its statement and Mr. Gill went on to say that “I remind the governor that hydraulic fracturing has been used successfully and safely on water, gas and oil wells for 60 years in New York, and that drinking water has not been adversely affected.”

Albert brown and his fellows at Frack Action Buffalo are not convinced. They never will be. They can quote chapter and verse their own stories of the dangers of fracking.

And they want the people of the State of New York, especially its neighbors in western New York to be aware. They will be spreading the word.

Fracking will indeed put millions of gallons of chemically laced water into the shale. Where this water will come from no has explained. Public and private water rights will have to be reevaluated. Albert brown reminds us that we have right here in our own back yard a priceless fresh water resource. Will our own at risk Great Lakes be further endangered? And so far these chemicals the have so far not fully been revealed.  Nearby aquifers and watersheds could be contaminated with disastrous results. Along with this drilling, thousands of acres will have to be cleared and new roads and pipelines constructed to accommodate the new rigs.

A new administration will soon be in place. This controversy will surely challenge it.