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White House Could Cast Decisive Vote to Permit 20,000 Fracking Wells in Delaware River Basin

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This week the Delaware River Basin Commission released draft regulations to allow for the natural gas drilling technique hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, in the river’s watershed, which provides water to 15.6 million people in New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey. The proposed plan would allow for some 20,000 gas wells to be developed in the watershed. A vote on the regulations is set for Nov. 21 and could prompt a battle between activists and the White House, which holds a seat on the commission and may cast the deciding vote. We speak with Josh Fox, whose documentary about fracking, “Gasland,” was nominated for an Academy Award, and play an excerpt of his new video about the possible impacts natural gas fracking could have in the Delaware River Basin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While environmentalists are claiming a temporary victory after the Obama administration put off approving the tar sands oil pipeline, another major fight between environmentalists and the White House is brewing in the Northeast. Earlier this week, the Delaware River Basin Commission released draft regulations to allow for the major natural gas drilling technique known as “fracking” in the river’s watershed. The Commission is expected to vote on the rules on November 21st. With one seat on the Commission, the White House may cast the deciding vote. The states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware also each have a representative on the board.

In a moment we’ll be joined by the film director and activist Josh Fox, who made the Academy Award-nominated film Gasland. But first let’s turn to his new short web video about this upcoming vote.

JOSH FOX: The Delaware River has never been in greater danger. There’s never been a more decisive or important moment in the fight against fracking and the Delaware River Basin than right now. Gas drilling companies have leased over 200,000 acres that border the Delaware River and its tributaries. For the past three-and-a-half years, thousands upon thousands of citizens and scores of organizations have fought to keep gas drilling of the Delaware River Basin. And for the past three-and-a-half years, the region has been in moratorium. On November 21st, all that could change.

On November 21st, the Delaware River Basin Commission will decide whether or not to end that moratorium and pass a plan that would allow for 20,000 gas wells in the Delaware River Basin. The Upper Delaware is one of the Northeast’s most important watershed areas, providing clean water to Trenton, Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, and it is part of the interconnected watershed system that provides water to New York City—altogether, providing water to 15 million people.

Gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing is an inherently contaminating industrial process that injects millions of gallons of water, laced with toxic chemicals, at enormous pressure to break apart rock and release gas from underground formations. Watersheds across the nation have been contaminated with plastics, carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals—and with explosive natural gas. It causes massive land scarring, air pollution, a public health crisis, massive truck traffic, miles and miles of pipelines, blowouts, spills, accidents. It is a whole-scale industrialization. Now, we face our most urgent crisis to date.

AMY GOODMAN: A new short web video made by Josh Fox, director of the Academy Award-nominated film Gasland. Josh Fox was also arrested, along with his mother, among the more than 1,200 people who were protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C.

Josh, why fight on the Keystone issue, as you take on the issue of fracking?

JOSH FOX: Well, actually, the Keystone issue is related to fracking. They use an enormous amount of natural gas to boil down the tar sands, along with huge quantities of water. So they’re taking fracked gas from southern Alberta, they’re taking fracked gas from all across Canada, to create tar sands oil, and then they’re pipelining it to several refineries already in the United States right now, where they have a waste product, which is natural gas, which is typically just flared off and not even counted. So this is an enormously wasteful process. But it’s in the context of extreme energy. When you’re talking about tar sands development, fracking, mountaintop removal, deepwater drilling, all these things that are disastrous, that are very, very dangerous, it’s part of a suite of this so-called new energy technology.

AMY GOODMAN: So were you surprised by the announcement by the Obama administration that they’re putting off fracking—they’re putting off the Keystone XL decision for at least a year, and what Naomi Klein was just saying was, since the investors—TransCanada said they will not stay with them, it could mean the death of the pipeline?

JOSH FOX: It restored my faith in America. I mean, protest works. That’s clear. People made an enormous amount of noise about the Keystone XL. And if anything is an encouragement to go ahead and protest at the Delaware River Basin Commission their regulations to frack the Delaware, frack 20,000 gas wells into the Delaware River watershed, the watershed that basically defines the word “watershed,” it’s that. So I think that there’s an enormous amount of momentum right now.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s been a moratorium until now?

JOSH FOX: Yeah, there’s been a moratorium. The Delaware River Basin Commission is a five-member interstate body: the governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania and a representative from the federal government, the Obama administration, in this case, the Army Corps of Engineers. So, there have been—there’s been a slow process, but I’ve been witness to thousands of citizens going to those River Basin Commission hearings over the past three-and-a-half years as I’ve gone. Every three months, they have public hearings. And you’ve been watching these regulations advance.Just last February, they came out with their draft regulations. They got 69,000 public comments, overwhelmingly in opposition to drilling the Delaware River Basin at all. And just to put that in context, for the entire New York State review, they got 14,000 public comments. It took New York State two years to get through 14,000 public comments. The Delaware River Basin Commission, however, is now saying that in just seven months they’ve gone through all 69,000, and they’ve come out with a regulatory package which would allow for upwards or more than 20,000 gas wells in the river basin. And the regulations are in fact weaker and worse than the first regulation package. So this is extremely shocking, extremely surprising, and it amounts to what is the industrialization of a national treasure, the Delaware River.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is suing over fracking?

JOSH FOX: That’s right. The Delaware River Basin Commission is required to conduct a cumulative impact study. That is to say, a study of all the effects of what this proposal would mean, according to the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA. So that—Eric Schneiderman took a look at this and said, “They are in violation of their own mission as a commission, and we’re” —

AMY GOODMAN: And Eric Schneiderman is the crusading attorney general, along with Delaware’s Beau Biden.

JOSH FOX: OK, yeah. Well, they—

AMY GOODMAN: Right? Vice President Biden’s son.

JOSH FOX: And it seems that they’re working together on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Around going after Wall Street.

JOSH FOX: Uh-huh, OK. Well, and I know there’s a conversation going on between Schneiderman and Beau Biden on the Delaware River Basin. However, it’s crucial that the Obama administration, represented by the Army Corps, and the state of Delaware reject this proposal, reject these draft regulations. It’s really coming down to those two votes. It’s a five-member commission. Three out of five wins. New York has already stated that they’re going to vote against the plan. Very surprising that they would come out and tell people. Indications are that New Jersey, Chris Christie, and Tom Corbett, the governor of Pennsylvania, will vote for it. So these two votes, with the Obama administration—

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey.

JOSH FOX: Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. But the Obama administration and the governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, they both have to vote “no” for this proposition to be defeated. We have information about this vote and all these things that people—we want people to do at savethedelawareriver.com, a new site that was started by myself and 350 and Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Democracy for America and United for Action. The list of organizations goes on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: 350.org, of course, instrumental in this Keystone—what environmentalists are calling a tremendous victory, the putting off of the decision. Where will all the efforts of the thousands of people, more than 10,000 just this past Sunday in Washington, who have just experienced this victory, go?

JOSH FOX: Well, I got an email last night from Bill McKibben, who took time out of an incredible day of people congratulating him, Bill McKibben, the leader of 350. And he sent a message very clearly: fracking is next, the Delaware River will play a major role. So we’re hoping that all of the people—and a lot of the fracktivists out there took part in that initial demonstrations in front of the White House. This movement has to turn towards the Delaware River Basin right now as the most important battleground for fracking, both nationwide and worldwide.

AMY GOODMAN: There have been a series of commercials that have come out on television. I want to play just a clip of one. These are for fracking.

EXXONMOBIL AD: America is facing some tough challenges right now. And two of the most important are energy security and economic growth. North America actually has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. A large part of that is oil sands. This resource has the ability to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. But our Kearl project in Canada will be able to produce these oil sands with the same emissions as many other oils, and that’s a huge breakthrough. That’s good for our country’s energy security and our economy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s actually an ExxonMobil ad that was for the tar sands pipeline. But there are similar ones around fracking.

JOSH FOX: Well, yeah, it’s part of the same campaign. You can’t turn on the television without seeing a natural gas ad. You can’t open up a magazine without seeing a natural gas ad. And they’re playbook is very, very clear. They’ve stated it. You have—at first, they attacked the hell out of the film. They sent a letter to the Oscars trying to rescind the nomination. And they realized that this—these brazen tactics—

AMY GOODMAN: And who is “they”?

JOSH FOX: Well, it’s hard to say who “they” is. There is an attack dog group, sort of like a rabid pitbull who drank too much Red Bull, called Energy in Depth. And they go out and attack families, and they’ve attacked Gasland. They attacked the New York Times. They attacked ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning news source. I’m sure they’ve probably attacked you at one point or another. And there was a very brazen kind of attack strategy. I think that backfired on them. And what they’re saying now is—this is a charm offensive on behalf of the gas industry, but it’s just as insidious, if not more. What they’re saying is, fracking is the road forward, this is the way to go.

But when you’re talking about the watershed for 16 million people, 15.6 million people, the Delaware River, that provides water to New York City, Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, Trenton—and what this regulation package amounts to is the permanent industrialization of that river, something it would never, ever recover from. This protest on November 21st, which you can find out more again about at savethedelawareriver.com, will happen at the—across the river from the barracks that George Washington left behind when he crossed the river to defeat the British to start the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe the most shocking piece in your film, in Gasland, that really ignited a nationwide movement against fracking, was the water exploding, that when someone lights—that people could light up their water.

JOSH FOX: Yeah. Well, this is incredibly distressing. You have—that was several families in that one segment of the film Gasland who could do that, and that was out in Colorado. We had reports of it in Dimock, and since that’s—Dimock, Pennsylvania, which is just 50 miles from the Delaware River Basin. And in Bradford County, just one county in Pennsylvania, over a period of one year’s worth of drilling, they had reports of 130 different incidents of families who could light their water on fire. It is an epidemic. Just three days ago in Pavillion, Wyoming, which is a segment of the film Gasland, EPA came in and showed, in that aquifer, where there’s quite a lot of drilling, they have 50 times the safe levels of benzene and other fracking chemicals in the aquifer. I mean, the evidence mounts time and time and time again. And the science, which is trailing, I think, the journalism a little bit, continues to prove and show that there is a relationship between fracking and flammable water, and fracking and contamination of groundwater with very, very serious chemicals and carcinogens.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Fox, thanks for being with us, director of the Academy Award-nominated film Gasland . We will link to the website savethedelawareriver.com and keep people updated on this debate. We did have a debate last Friday when we were up in Syracuse, because the Syracuse Common Council, their city council, has banned fracking.

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