How New York won a fracking ban

December 18, 2014

The grassroots campaign against fracking anywhere in New York was the backdrop to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision, explain Joan McKiernan and Danny Katch.

NEW YORK Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on December 17 that he had decided to ban hydraulic fracturing--fracking for short--in New York state because of the harm it causes in air and water pollution.

"This news is a victory for all New Yorkers who have dedicated their lives for the past six years to keep fracking out of New York," said Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for governor in November, who made fracking a central part of his campaign.

Gloria Mattera, the Green Party's state co-chair, added, "Finally, the Cuomo administration has embraced what we have known all along--that fracking pollutes the air, land and water, posing incalculable risks to families and business across New York, especially those near drilling sites."

More mainstream voices in the environmental movement gave Cuomo more credit than he deserved. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said that Cuomo had "set himself apart as a national political leader who stands up for people, and not for the interests of the dirty-fuel lobby. "

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Azi Paybarah)

In fact, Cuomo has been anything but a leader on the issue of fracking. Throughout his first term as governor, he refused to make permanent a moratorium put in place by former Gov. David Paterson in 2008, despite a powerful anti-fracking movement throughout upstate New York. Many activists expected the governor to stick to his pattern of siding with the interests of corporations over working-class people.

That he didn't is a result of "five years of constantly bird-dogging Cuomo and protests and marches all over the state," said ecosocialist writer and activist Chris Williams. "It's also a victory for the left, which had to argue originally against the green groups who wanted to regulate and have 'safe' fracking." He added, "Having 400,000 people on the streets of New York City in September for the climate march probably didn't hurt either."

In an interview, Hawkins said that activists still face many challenges, from fighting the inevitable industry lawsuits to overturn the ban, to challenging the fracking infrastructure of pipelines across the state and gas storage in the salt caverns near Seneca Lake, to campaigning for a "state plan for a rapid transition to 100 percent green energy to fight climate change, lower electric costs and create millions of new jobs," he said.

Those fights will have to draw on the energy and passion of the activists who have won this first round against fracking.

IN THE weeks and months preceding Cuomo's decision, the movement to ban fracking was in high gear, mounting protests and holding a conference that brought many activists together. Their rallying cry was "not one well," as they launched the latest phase in a long campaign to keep fracking at bay.

Some 200 activists from 36 New York counties met on November 15 to share their experiences in combating the spread of dirty energy. While no gas fracking wells had yet been constructed in New York--as they have with devastating results next door in Pennsylvania--local communities had already experienced fallout from a treacherous maze of pipelines, compressor stations, and gas storage and waste projects.

"According to Bloomberg News, more than $21 billion of pipelines and associated structures are planned to move natural gas from the Marcellus Shale underlying Pennsylvania and New York to points north and south," said Ellen Harrison, chair of the Coalition to Protect Communities from Fracking's Collateral Damage, which organized the Collateral Damage from Fracking conference.

Opponents of wrecking the environment feared the governor would agree to allow fracking in areas "where people want it," despite numerous polls showing that there is no section of the state that favors this destructive practice.

Earlier, Cuomo had signaled his willingness to give a green light for fracking in the so-called "sacrifice zone" of the Southern Tier, an area of declining industry, social deprivation and unemployment. This is New York's part of Appalachia, and its economic development needs have long been ignored by Albany.

But the organizers of the anti-fracking campaign pushed Cuomo to confront the scientific evidence, publishing a second edition of a collection of scientific research clearly demonstrating that fracking is extremely harmful to residents' health.

Given the economic devastation, there were people in the Southern Tier who understandably saw fracking as a quick way to develop the area. Others, especially landowners, were hoping to make a quick buck if the pipelines were approved. They brought loudhailers to heckle and stop anti-fracking actions, referred to protesters as "outside agitators," and tried to prevent local people from discussing fracking at town meetings.

Of course, a far more effective way to create jobs would be to put thousands of people to work converting the existing energy infrastructure to a sustainable, clean-energy-based system.

Cuomo received generous campaign contributions from "Big Gas," the drilling companies that see New York as a source of big profits and are supported by the local police and judges who are sending the peaceful Seneca Lake protesters to jail.

Falling oil prices likely played a part in persuading Cuomo that fracking made no sense in New York state. As Chip Northrup noted on his No Fracking Way blog:

Both [Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens] cited the greatly reduced area where fracking would actually take place in New York--since most upstate towns ban it. And the only towns that might allow it are in a small area by the Pennsylvania border that is not currently economic...

Martens specifically noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight and the large areas that would be off-limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections and local prohibitions. He said those factors combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than had been anticipated.

But it's also clear that the grassroots organizations that have been fighting back tipped the political scales against fracking with their noisy and assertive street protests, which built up a wall of opposition to the invasion of fracking infrastructure in local communities throughout the state.

AT THE November conference, campaigners shared the research, education, strategies and tactics that they have used to fight the gas companies. Lawyers, grassroots organizers and local town council members explained how legislation could be used, while others described how to push regulators to do their job and protect people rather than the gas companies.

Speakers from Madison County down to Orange County shared stories about learning how to organize, raise awareness and get people together to protect their health. For many, it was a learning experience--learning about the dangers, how to use local zoning laws to pass fracking bans, how to organize.

In Minisink, for example, the entire town opposed the placement of a compressor station in the midst of a residential area. Local people suggested another location where no families were living. The gas company said no. After the compressor was installed, families began experiencing rashes, nosebleeds and abdominal cramps. More than 200 families are at risk for similar health problems from toxic air as well as injury from explosions, which are a regular occurrence at compressor stations.

Minisink resident Pramela Malik discussed the lessons of their struggle. She explained that the federal regulators did not regulate and that gas company money went to local politicians and judges. Malik concluded that the root of the fracking problem is that we have a broken democracy.

Speaker after speaker confirmed the looming dangers, even without fracking, from gas waste, the use of drilling waste on roads, the Bakken Shale being transported close to schools and the radioactive waste that is a byproduct of the process. They also confirmed that their experiences showed the failure of federal and state governments, which in all cases sided with the polluters.

Ellen Harrison concluded that the overriding message of the conference was that local communities must take responsibility for protecting themselves against the ongoing build-out. Several panelists agreed that direct action was a crucial avenue for those who decry the widespread development of energy infrastructure in New York and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, many leading figures in the movement regarded Democratic Party officials as allies and refused to support the campaign of Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins, even though he was the only candidate who clearly opposed fracking and had won impressive support in the upstate counties likely to be fracked.

But this victory against fracking belongs to the ordinary people of New York state who stood up to the gas industry and organized creative and confrontational grassroots protests, despite those who called for supporting industry-backed politicians in the name of "political expediency."

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