Andean fracking? No thank you.

New York Times contributor Stanley Fish is one of America's best known and engaging public academic intellectuals. In yesterday's Times he tackled natural gas development and fracking as seen by residents of Andes, New York (link here). It is both sobering and hopeful.

Fish writes,

Then came the evening’s centerpiece, three-minute prepared statements delivered by townspeople who had signed up in advance. It is often said that the opponents of fracking are mostly second-home-owners and weekenders who selfishly prefer their enjoyment of a bucolic landscape to the needs of the long-termers who came before them. But the speakers who stood up to have their say represented every sector of the population — farmers, small-business owners, real estate agents, six-generation natives, newcomers, artists, musicians.

As different as they were, the message was the same and it was eloquently proclaimed: “What we have here is unique and beautiful.” “We have to take action to keep the town we love.” “We must take our destiny into our own hands.” “Andes could become the model for the country.” One of the speakers was a local and a folksinger. She made up a song on the spot and taught it to everyone. The refrain was “If we work together / Then we can make it better.”

It is striking to read this as a Pennsylvanian where natural gas development has barely been checked by citizens at all and coddled by the legislature, two governors, and what some have called a gutless regulatory bureaucracy and enforcement branch. I don't doubt that people in Andes, New York have seen what's happening in Pennsylvania and reached Fish's conclusion.

There was agreement that regulation wasn’t the answer, first because no regulation could prevent the disasters that come along inevitably with a project this large, and second because the state couldn’t be counted on either to pass or enforce regulations: “I can’t trust an industry that has got itself exempted from the air and clean water act.” The position that emerged at the end of the evening was simple and unequivocal: “You can’t regulate them but you can ban them if you are sophisticated enough legally and if you remain strong and stay the course.” Every statement was greeted with loud applause. One speaker called for a straw poll. “Anyone in favor of fracking?” Not a hand was raised.

“Inspiring” is not a word I usually use, but this evening was inspiring. The devotion to community, the civic-mindedness, the sheer intelligence displayed by everyone who spoke was a more powerful argument for coming to Andes than the beauties and attractions listed by the Post. But the argument will come to nothing, and everything the Post celebrates will be no more, if the rural birthright of Andes is sold for a mess of fracking.

Will Pennsylvanians be so inspired? Will we turn this tide?

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