Alex Halperin Wins March Sidney for American Prospect Article on Risks of Natural Gas Drilling
NEW YORK: The Hillman Foundation announced today that Alex Halperin has won the March Sidney award for “Drill, Maybe Drill?”, his feature in The American Prospect which examines whether the plans for extensive natural-gas drilling in upstate New York are a “ticket out of economic depression – or a serious environmental risk.”
Sidney Award judge Charles Kaiser said, “Halperin’s piece does a great job of illuminating a burgeoning national issue – the quick expansion of a barely regulated industry whose environmental dangers are only beginning to be looked at, particularly in New York state.”
As Halperin writes, “despite objections from environmentalists about water use and chemicals, shale drilling is poised to be a big part of the world’s energy future.” Although a de facto moratorium on drilling is currently in effect in New York, gas companies are rushing to secure the minerals rights of landowners across upstate New York, some of whom are eager to cash in on signing bonuses and royalties.
“The Endocrine Disruption Exchange obtained data on 246 products used in natural-gas production in Colorado and found that more than 40 percent contain chemicals that disrupt hormonal processes,” Halperin reports. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental regulations, “an addition sometimes called the ‘Halliburton loophole.’ Now congressional democrats have proposed tighter regulations, and the industry has predictably howled in disapproval.”
Halperin is 31 years old and lives in Brooklyn. This was his first piece for The American Prospect. He is a former reporter for BusinessWeek.com and Dow Jones. He spent a year covering business and economic development topics in sub-Saharan Africa on a fellowship with the Phillips Foundation. His work has appeared in publications including Fortune, Slate, n+1, Institutional Investor, Fast Company, Earth Island Journal,The Cambodia Daily and the Financial Times magazine. Halperin is also a non-fiction editor at the online magazine Guernica.
This month the Hillman Foundation would also like to give a special mention to Ladd Biro, who has reported on natural-gas drilling in Texas. Biro’s op-eds in The Cross Timbers Gazette show how the massive drilling under way in the state has prompted a spate of community organizing. Read one of his pieces here.
The Sidney Award is given once a month to an outstanding piece of socially-conscious journalism by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which also awards the annual Hillman Prizes every spring. Winners of the Sidney receive $500, a certificate designed by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Sorel, and a bottle of union made wine. Nominations can be submitted here.
Alex Halperin discusses his Sidney winning story about the perils of natural gas drilling.
1.Why did you decide to look into natural gas drilling?
I like stories where environmental ideals bump into economic realities. Initially I wanted to learn more about how fracking [hydraulic fracturing] would affect New York City’s water supply, which turned out not to be a big part of the piece. When I started talking to people who’d leased their land for thousands of dollars and still felt ripped off it was pretty clear there was a good story.
2. What surprised you as you did your research?
I was surprised by how divided opinion is. New Yorkers are looking at the drilling situation in Pennsylvania and drawing wildly different conclusions. Some people see an environmental disaster while others perceive an economic miracle. This sounds like a familiar story. But as Sarah Laskow shows in her terrific companion piece An Unnatural Alliance, natural gas, as an abundant and clean burning fossil fuel, is attractive to many pragmatic liberals. Like most of reality, elements of the natural gas story don’t fit the usual red state/blue state narrative.
3. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?
I’d go deeper into the differences between the contracts signed by individual lessors and those signed by members of landowner coalitions. Bruce Murray sat down at his kitchen table and thought of a few things he’d like the gas companies to do. The landowner coalitions have produced heavily-lawyered, incredibly detailed contracts with more environmental protections and even a more favorable way to quantify the amount of gas produced. Despite the environmental degradation it’s very hard to tell someone not to lease their land for $5,500 per acre plus 20% royalties. They’re taking a calculated risk in tough times. But it’s important to stress that these companies have more information and more resources than the lessors. They drive a hard bargain whether or not a potential lessor is prepared.
4. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?
Most people think fracking is inevitable. I’d love to follow up a few months after it began.