Anti-fracking students pedal against natural gas, for clean energy

HADLEY — They’ve taken shelter under the eaves of a retirement home during a flash flood, pedaled for consecutive days in 95-degree weather, braved thunderstorms and arrived in Amherst a day before a tornado warning.

They are six college students from four states, including Massachusetts, cycling around the state and Pioneer Valley as part of a 10-week circuit to raise awareness about climate change and, in particular, the environmental dangers of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

“We’ve been riding in Massachusetts since mid-June,” said Matt Menezes, of Boulder, Colo., a recent graduate of the University of Virginia. Their trip began in New Hampshire. “None of us has gotten into a car or slept in a bed for a month.”

Three other teams of a half dozen young riders with the Climate Summer program are moving through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and eastern Massachusetts educating and rallying citizens on other issues like improving accountability for natural gas pipeline safety. The program is run by the nonprofit Better Future Project.

After rolling into Amherst Saturday, the western Massachusetts contingent has been working with local leaders and environmental groups as it touts its message. The group has been staying at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, among other churches in the region.

On Tuesday night, members hosted a screening of the film “Gasland” and a discussion on natural gas issues at the North Star building on Route 9 in Hadley. The 2010 documentary film by Josh Fox, nominated for an Academy Award, examines the environmental and health hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, in dozens of communities around the country. Fox explored the subject after a gas company offered his family $100,000 to begin drilling on their Pennsylvania land.

“What I found was widespread water contamination, air pollution, health crises and fragmentation of communities,” Fox said in an interview about the film published Monday by LiveScience.com.

Meantime, environmentalists are pushing Massachusetts lawmakers to support a bill co-sponsored by state Reps. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, and Denise Provost, D-Somerville, that would ban fracking and the processing of its wastewater in Massachusetts. Vermont banned fracking last year. The process involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals at high pressure into the ground to fracture shale rock and release natural gas. Opponents say the chemicals contaminate groundwater and people’s drinking water.

Environment Massachusetts last week delivered petitions signed by more than 11,000 state residents urging lawmakers on Beacon Hill to ban the drilling process.

“In states like Pennsylvania, we have already seen fracking contaminate drinking water and make nearby residents sick,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment Massachusetts at the time the petitions were delivered. “Residents looking at this track record have one message for their legislators today: Keep this dirty drilling out of Massachusetts.”

Interest in fracking grew in Massachusetts after the U.S. Geological Survey reported shale gas deposits in the Pioneer Valley last year.

Roving anti-fracking unit

The Climate Summer team, which earlier worked in Greenfield to raise awareness about fracking and natural gas, will be holding a public rally Sunday in Northampton in Lampron Park in front of Bridge Street School with a particular emphasis on the anti-fracking bill Kocot has co-sponsored.

The event from 2 to 5 p.m. will feature music, a community art project, food and speakers, including Peter Vickery, an Amherst lawyer, and George Aguiar of Climate Action Now, among others.

In addition to the process of fracking, the Climate Summer team has been trying to educate Valley residents about the role natural gas plays in climate change. The public conversation about the issue has been confused and obscured, the riders say.

“One of the challenges is the way natural gas and fracking has been framed as environmentally friendly,” said rider Caroline White-Nockleby of Cambridge, a Williams College student. “It’s definitely been a challenge to get our message across that natural gas still emits, it still pollutes.

“For a lot of people, the only thing they hear about fracking and natural gas is what the gas companies have put out there,” White-Nockleby added. “For the first time, I think people are hearing another viewpoint.”

Menezes says it’s critical for state and federal governments to stop funding fossil fuel infrastructure projects, including hydraulic fracking for natural gas, which is a model he described as unsustainable and environmentally damaging, particularly through methane emissions. Massachusetts, this group believes, can be a leader again, just as it was on abolition and gay marriage, if it were to ban fracking in a state where it may be viable.

“We have the technology and the power to mass-produce renewable energy right now and make people realize that is the case,” said Climate Summer rider Alexandra Hogan of Medford, N.J., a student at Eckerd College.

After the Climate Summer riders stop in Northampton this weekend, they cycle to Holyoke and Springfield before heading to Worcester and Cape Cod, where their trip will culminate with a support rally for the Cape Wind project. In all, they will have cycled approximately 1,000 to 1,200 miles.

Said Sarah Foster, an Amherst College student from Lexington: “It’s an adventure every day.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.