September 22, 2010

22nd Congressional District Candidates Take Opposing Stances In Hydrofracking Debate

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This November, incumbent U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-22) will face off against Republican George Phillips for the district Congressional seat. While the two candidates say they support continued Congressional funding for higher education, they differ in their approaches to the issue of hydraulic fracturing, a contentious question on campus and in the Ithaca area.

Hinchey, who has represented the Ithaca area since 1993, supports federal involvement, while Phillips — who is currently a social studies and theology teacher at a high school in Binghamton — says he is committed to state regulations.

Hydraulic fracturing — “hydrofracking” — is a process by which gas companies inject a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into their wells to ease natural gas to the surface. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the launch of an investigation into hydrofracking and its impact on drinking water in March.

In early August, the New York State Senate overwhelmingly passed a ban on drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a large rock formation containing vast natural gas reserves that extends from Virginia to Western New York, including the Ithaca area. The moratorium extends until May 15 pending further evaluation of environmental impacts.

Hinchey is a sponsor of the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals — or FRAC — Act, which is aimed at establishing federal control over hydrofracking. The gas industry opposes the FRAC Act, which would force companies to publicize the chemical compounds used for hydrofracking.

“The safety of drinking water in the Southern Tier and in the Finger Lakes will always be an important priority” for Hinchey, said Liam Fitzsimmons, spokesperson for the Hinchey campaign.

But according to Phillips’ website, the FRAC Act “would bring the federal government into the process and delay it for years.”

Expediency in developing the region’s natural gas reserves will be an important economic issue. According to Fitzimmons, voters are eager to see more jobs in the area.

The convergence of economic stimulation near the Marcellus Shale and concern for environmental issues is a contentious issue in the election.

According to his website, Phillips supports “harnessing the huge potential of our native natural gas supplies.” His platform emphasizes domestic resources, referencing the viability of potential alternative energy sources and off-shore drilling.

However, his campaign emphasizes the distinction between state and federal intervention.

“He supports allowing the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to continue on with the two years of work they have done,” said Jazz Shaw, Phillips’ press representative.  When asked about federal legislation like the FRAC Act, he said that “we can do this at the state level,” placing emphasis on the local government’s role in interpreting what is right for the state.

Some experts acknowledge the possibility of negative effects of drilling into the Marcellus Shale, yet caution against a permanent ban.

“There are many people in Central New York who subjectively view the environmental risks as being so large, and possibly irreversible,” Prof. Jon M. Conrad, applied economics and management, stated in an e-mail. “The truth is we don’t know what those damages might be.”

Although the candidates’ views on hydrofracking differ considerably, the outcome of the election will not likely affect the University’s levels of federal funding.

Stephen Johnson, Vice President for Government and Community Relations for the University, emphasized that federal funding for universities is allocated on a “bipartisan basis” and a change in representation would not affect the University’s finances. Johnson said the Office of Government and Community Relations would “work as closely as [they] could” with Phillips if he were to win the election.

However, “Representative Hinchey has been outstanding” in representing the University’s interests on Capitol Hill, said Dianne Miller, Cornell’s director of federal relations.

Original Author: Maggie Henry