As part of our staff spotlight series, learn more about Karen Edelstein and how her work through FracTracker has changed the course of drilling in New York State.
Time with FracTracker: I started with FracTracker in 2010 as a contract employee and then in 2012 started working 25 hours a week as a regular part-time staffer.
Education: M.P.S. in Environmental Management, and B.S. in Natural Resources, both from Cornell University
Office Location: Ithaca, NY
Title: Eastern Program Coordinator
What do you actually do in that role?
My job has changed a lot since I started working for FracTracker. I came to FracTracker when many New Yorkers were frantically learning as much as they could about unconventional drilling for natural gas, which at the time, appeared likely to start happening in the near future. Over a period of years, using credible public data, I have created dozens of maps on topics about geology, water withdrawals, waste transportation, hydrocarbon storage, and documenting the surging movements of public opposition to high-volume hydraulic fracturing for gas. The maps were informative to a wide range of decision-makers, environmental advocates, educators, and citizens.
Now, I’m working more broadly on projects up and down the East Coast. These projects include documenting controversies surrounding pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure, and the public opposition to this development. I also support FracTracker’s mission to educate and report on the alternatives to fossil fuel infrastructure, and have been looking at renewable energy issues, as well.
Previous Positions and Organizations
Over the past 16 years, I’ve used geographic information systems in positions at numerous environmental and educational organizations, working for land trusts and other nonprofit agencies, secondary school teacher development programs, and county government agencies. Prior to that, I worked as a naturalist and environmental educator for ten years.
How did you first get involved working on oil and gas issues / fracking?
I live in a rural area of New York State that was in the cross-hairs of the oil and gas industry about 9 years ago. Landsmen were at the door asking me to lease my land, “thumper trucks” were pounding the roads trying to get seismic readings, and helicopters were overhead dropping bundles of equipment to conduct testing. Few people, including me, understood the enormity of what was going on. I joined a few community groups that wanted to know more.
Shortly after a multi-year work contract I had at a local college ended, in 2010, I met the (then small) staff of FracTracker at a public training event in Central New York. The organization had just been formed, and the presentation was all about mapping in Pennsylvania. I went right up to the director and told him how much we needed similar work in New York State, and I could be the person to do it! I started working part-time for FracTracker within the month.
What is one of the most impactful projects that you have been involved in with FracTracker?
Our map of New York State bans and moratoria on high volume hydraulic fracturing received a great deal of attention in the years leading up to the eventual statewide ban on the process. Over time, close to 200 municipalities enacted legislation. It was rewarding to document this visually through a progression of dozens of maps during that period. These maps of how municipality after municipality invoked New York State home rule provided important touchstones for community activists, too. In late 2014, in their announcement about the decision to ban HVHF in NYS, New York’s Health and Environment commissioners cited FracTracker’s map as an indication of patterns of strong ambivalence towards the process among state residents:
Together DEC’s proposed restrictions and local bans and moratoria total approximately 7.5 million acres, or about 63% of the resource. Here’s a summary of the local government restrictions and prohibitions. And the picture even gets cloudier. The practical impact of the Dryden decision I mentioned earlier is that even more acreage may be off-limits to HVHF drilling. Within the 4.5 million acres NOT excluded by the state or local restrictions, approximately 253 towns have zoning and 145 have no zoning. Each town with zoning would have to determine whether its current law restricts or even allows HVHF. So those towns without zoning would still have to decide whether to allow HVHF virtually anywhere or to prescribe where drilling could occur. The uncertainty about whether HVHF is an authorized use would undoubtedly result in additional litigation. It would also result in a patchwork of local land use rules which industry has claimed would utterly frustrate the rational development of the shale resource. Clearly the court’s decision shifted the battleground to town boards, to as evidenced by the conflicting claims of the opposing stakeholder groups. According to the Joint Landowners Coalition, many towns in the Southern Tier have passed resolutions favoring HVHF, while the online map from FracTracker.org indicates that many of the same towns are moving toward a ban. Indeed, our own informal outreach to towns in the Southern Tier confirms that even towns that support HVHF decisions are still up in the air. I’d say that the prospects for HVHF development in NY are uncertain, at best.