Mike Shuster and Lisa Zaccaglini found their piece of paradise at the end of a narrow and steep gravel driveway.
There, in the rolling beauty of western Schoharie County, in the village of Sharon Springs, they converted an abandoned house into a cozy and comfortable home and turned fallow land into a flourishing garden that provides much of their food.
But the married couple worry about a looming threat to the life they’ve created. They fear that hydraulic fracturing — a controversial form of natural gas drilling — could spoil the tranquility, pollute the air and perhaps even taint the drinking water.
“The scope of what they’re planning to do in New York state is mammoth,” Zaccaglini said. “We could be collateral damage. We’re in the way.”
Whether such fears are justified is the subject of intense debate in much of upstate New York as the state prepares to lift its prohibition on hydraulic fracturing. That’s especially true in Sharon, where property owners have signed dozens of leases giving gas companies the right to drill on thousands of acres of private land.
Officials in the town, which has more land leased to gas companies than anywhere else in Schoharie County, find themselves thrust into a debate they wouldn’t have imagined. They’re being asked to balance weighty issues like job creation and national energy security against the possibility that drilling could damage the town’s bucolic character.
“I think it’s on everyone’s mind every hour of the day,” said Sandra Manko, the supervisor in Sharon, which includes the village of Sharon Springs and is about 40 miles west of Schenectady.
“These are trying times,” Manko said.
Similar debates, of course, are being held in other New York towns above the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. And such discussions could migrate to Schenectady and Albany counties, which are identified on state maps as likely drilling areas for the deeper Utica Shale outcrop.
Hydrofracking, as it is sometimes called, involves using water, mixed with sand and chemicals, to fracture rock and release trapped gas. The process has been used to access natural gas in states such as Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — on that point, everyone agrees.
But nearly everything else about the process is up for debate, or so it sometimes seems.
Environmentalists say it is nearly untouched by federal regulation. They cite the difficulty of disposing of the wastewater and say they fear that chemicals could migrate into streams and aquifers.
Energy companies and other hydrofracking proponents, meanwhile, insist that drilling is safe and say that the state’s proposed rules, which are under review, would be among the strictest in the nation.
They also say the vast underground oceans of natural gas within the Marcellus and Utica shales could provide an important environmental benefit: A reliable source of energy that’s far cleaner and greener than coal or oil.
“The idea is to retrofit existing coal power plants for natural gas,” said John Conrad, a hydrogeologist and spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a trade group. “It emits far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
Proponents also tout drilling’s potential to revive the economy — and provide new tax revenue — in parts of New York that have been struggling for decades. A study by the research arm of the Business Council of New York State, a Chamber of Commerce group, even claims such drilling could create nearly 38,000 statewide jobs annually during the next decade.
Opponents, however, contend that many of the jobs would be migratory — moving from town to town as wells runs dry — and would go to skilled industry workers from Texas or Oklahoma. And they say drilling is a threat for two economic mainstays in rural parts of upstate: tourism and agriculture.
The experience in Pennsylvania, which has geography similar to that of upstate New York and began issuing fracking permits in 2007, offers a mixed bag of results.
Bradford County and other parts of the state certainly have seen boosts to employment and tax revenue. But Pennsylvania environmental regulators have found that drilling contaminated some wells with methane, and some residents rue their changed quality of life.
Sharon is a town that takes its quality of life seriously. The hip and historic village of Sharon Springs, often featured on the reality television show “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” is charming and well preserved, while the rest of Sharon is steadfastly agricultural and resistant to development.
The first hints of hydrofracking arrived in Sharon three years ago, when representatives of the natural gas industry began contacting residents to inquire about land leases. There was a buzz in town, residents say, as gossip spread about the newcomers — and the money they were offering.
The industry found willing partners in Sumner and Kate Watson, who farm 340 acres off Slate Hill Road. The pair, then and now, see gas industry leases as a boost for long-struggling farmers.
“As landowners in New York, we pay quite a lot in taxes, and it’s difficult to make a living,” said Kate Watson. “So when somebody approaches you about using your land for a clean energy source, it seems like a win-win situation.”
The Watsons defy easy stereotypes. They’re certified organic farmers. They moved to Sharon from New Hampshire because they valued the town’s farm-centric life. They say they take their role as stewards of the land seriously.
But they don’t see hydrofracking as a threat to that stewardship, and they don’t regret the lease.
Paul Todd, 56, feels differently. He happily signed when offered slightly more than $10,000 — paid over five years — plus a 1 percent royalty on any gas taken from his 113-acre property, but he has come to lament his decision.
Like most New Yorkers, Todd knew little about hydrofracking at the time. And the gas company, he says, downplayed both the risks and intensity of the process.
Indeed, even backers say the decision to sign a lease shouldn’t be taken lightly. The sites typically cover five or six acres, and they’re 24-hour operations that bring noise and considerable truck traffic.
Todd is hoping that his five-year lease expires in 2013 without the gas companies arriving on his land. He doesn’t intend to renew.
Meanwhile, Sharon officials are moving to restrict fracturing. The all-Republican town board, while resisting calls for an explicit ban, recently passed a resolution noting its opposition.
“We as a town board agree that it’s not the best practice to have happen,” said member Carl Ullman, 76, a lifelong Sharon resident, who calls fracking one of the hottest town issues he’s seen.
The town also hopes to use zoning code and laws restricting trucks on local roads to effectively stop drilling.
It remains an open question, though, how much Sharon and other towns will be able to limit it. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency expects that courts ultimately will settle debates over how far local municipalities can go in restricting the practice.
In the meantime, fracking opponents like Shuster and Zaccaglini say they’ll continue to fight for drilling limits.
The couple, who moved to Sharon Springs from Brooklyn, say fighting fracturing has become a second full-time job that rivals the time spent on their cereal business. Among their efforts is an anti-fracking monument along Main Street composed of small flags — in a town where “No Drill” lawn signs are common.
Polls show that the state’s population is more or less evenly divided on fracking, with greater support for drilling in rural areas. But in Sharon, even supporters of hydrofracking concede the opposition has displayed far more public passion.
“I want a ‘Friend of Natural Gas’ sign on my lawn,” said Kate Watson. “But I don’t know where you get those signs.”