Thursday, May 30, 2013

Listening Projects on fracking

UPDATE: Dryden NY Wins Battle Against Fracking   

Listening Projects on Fracking in New York 
by Dirk Trachy 

In recent years, the controversial gas drilling method known as high volume hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking has become a topic of household discussion across the country. In the state of New York, concerned residents have organized scores of grassroots groups to confront the oil and gas industry and have effected a de facto moratorium for several years now.

In the economically depressed rural rustbelt of Upstate, tensions can run high on the issue. While the media often portrays simplistic dichotomies of landowners or lease holders versus environmentalists, the on the ground realities are far more complex. Safeguarding our water, air, climate, communities and rural economies requires complex local knowledge and relationship building in sometimes polarized areas. 

In the small town of Van Etten, NY, one community group approached its grassroots organizing from a starting place of listening.

Van Etten, NY
Van Etten has experienced gas drilling and leasing for generations but high volume fracking is a game-changing development in the local history of community/gas company relations. Just 12 miles from the Pennsylvania border, news of the gas drilling boom that fracking has brought there, both good and bad, is never far away. Being directly in the path of the newly constructed Millennium Pipeline, Van Etten is a place that could see fracking far sooner than surrounding towns, should the method be approved in NY state. Landmen have been selling leases, neighbors have been making deals, various facilities have been proposed. Great controversy exists as to what fracking could mean in Van Etten and the stakes are as high as the very air, water and rural way of life most residents cherish.

At the same time, rural poverty is very real and employment is often low paying and a very long drive away for many residents. Fracking has been marketed as a miracle cure for economic hard times and many are as eager for an economic boon as they are to safeguard their home. Gas company PR is continuously deployed to exacerbate this tension. We cannot shy away from the complexity.

The Van Etten Listening Project
The Van Etten Listening Project (VELP) emerged from the efforts of  local farmers who had signed gas leases and were concerned about what the gas companies were up to after having negative experiences with them. Researching and speaking with others across the country, they learned of the havoc fracking had caused in other areas and realized that they had to do something to protect their home. They also realized that they would need some very thoughtful approaches.

VELP trained 50 volunteers in active listening, non-violent communication, basic community organizing skills and the complex economic and cultural factors involved. Most households in Van Etten were visited and interviewed over the course of two winters (2009 and 2010). Residents were asked about their hopes and desires for the future of their town, their experiences with gas companies, their perceptions about their neighbors attitudes towards gas drilling and more.

The extensive face-to-face listening grounded activists in a deep level of context and confidence in understanding the fracking issue in Van Etten and gave many residents an opportunity to discuss their strong feelings about an important issue, sometimes for the first time out loud to another person.

The Van Etten Listening Project ensured that community organizing in Van Etten would come from a humble and grounded place, informed from a broad perspective and a genuine desire to take other's needs into account.  Far from a cookie-cutter landowners vs environmentalists morality play, we found that many landowners and leaseholders had deep concerns about their land, water, air and rural lifeways and many concerns about the oil and gas industry that were not being discussed on television or in the newspapers. The widespread concerns over water issues led to the creation of Cayuga Catatonk Waterwatch -- an innovative community initiative whereby residents were trained by scientists to conduct extensive baseline water testing and stream and creek monitoring throughout local watersheds.

Listening Spreads
Inspired by the Van Etten Listening Project, community members in Dryden, New York carried out their own listening project and trainings and materials have been shared with other groups as well. We even shared materials with a group in Bolivia! Listening is a powerful place from which to build a movement. As climate change, resource depletion, inequality and economic austerity loom, every community increasingly find themselves in complicated social territory in uncertain times. Listening Projects can be a very powerful way to begin to restitch our social fabric and build the relationships from which creative and lasting change can emerge.


Dirk Trachy is a former NY farm worker and present day crisis specialist on a southwestern hotline where listening continues to be an important part of his life. He has a passion for social and environmental justice and is interested in just about everything.  

Get Involved
Are you interested in a listening project about fracking? Do you want to start your own local project? Contact us to learn about resources and training options in your area. Or tell others about us and/or send us contact information.