Fracking Opponents Await Cuomo Decision

Apr 29, 2013

Credit WAMC News

In the five years since New Yorkers first began to hear about horizontal hydrofracking, the state has become a battleground over the gas drilling technique. While opponents have some high profile support, their movement remains mostly a loose collection of small groups that have been remarkably effective. Our story comes from David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

When philosophy professor Mike Gorr and his wife were looking for a place to retire, they took a trip from Illinois to New York’s Finger Lakes region.

"When we first drove into Skaneatles, I looked around and said, 'I think I can live here,'" he says. "And so we did."

But not long after they moved to nearby town of Niles, the Gorrs got an unwelcome surprise. Turns out their new home was sitting on top of the Marcellus shale and the surrounding area could be hydrofracked for natural gas. Gorr says he was never politically active, but that quickly changed.

"I started regularly going to the town board meetings," he says. "I sent out a mail petition to every registered voter in Niles."

A petition asking the board to ban hydrofracking. With more than 300 signatures in hand, Gorr got the board to agree to a temporary moratorium while it considered an outright ban.

While Mike Gorr’s actions may have been out of character for him, that sort of bottom-up activism is common in the anti-fracking movement across New York. Dozens of small groups have formed with names like Sustainable Otsego, Cauyga Anti-Fracking Alliance, Concerned Citizens of Ulysses. Often they were started by just a few people worried about the local impact of drilling.

Many of these people did not start out as committed opponents, says journalist Tom Wilber. Wilber has covered the issue from the beginning and is the author of Under The Surface: Fracking, Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale.

"The movement started...with people who had questions about shale gas development," he says. 'They didn't have any particular ideology with it, just a lot of questions, concerns and skepticism."

As their skepticism grew - in part because inability of state officials to answer their questions, says Wilbur – they pressured Albany with tens of thousands of public comments. And when the state instituted a moratorium, the anti-fracking movement had time to grow. Wilbur says the movement is a big reason why there still is no fracking in New York.

"I think the political pressure on Cuomo is huge," he says. "And I think the political pressure comes from the grassroots pressure."

Recent polls show New York voters pretty evenly split on fracking, but many opponents feel they’re winning the fight. More than 50 towns and cities have banned the practice, and about 100 have moratoriums of their own. Lawyer Helen Slottje devised a legal strategy using home rule and zoning to ban fracking, which -so far- has survived court challenges. She says her phone keeps ringing, but now the questions are different.

The gas industry and its supporters say the opponents have greatly exaggerated the risks of drilling, but Slottje and other activists believe momentum is building for a statewide ban.  Big national groups like the Sierra Club are now on board, after first focusing on getting tougher regulations. Some celebrities have lent their star power to the cause. And, says Cornell University’s Rich Stedman, who studies social issues related to the environment, the movement has turned an important corner.

They’ve turned to climate change, and the wisdom of investing heavily in more fossil fuel instead of renewable energy.  That discussion is now squarely on the table, says journalist Tom Wilber, a little soul searching that’s good for everyone.  

"We all enjoy the benefits of fossil fuel extraction, as long as we don't have to look too closely where that comes from," he says. "But this idea of shale gas development in our backyard, in New York especially, has really forced us to take a hard look at that."

That alone may be a victory for fracking opponents, but “Not One Well” remains their motto and their goal. Governor Cuomo’s decision on fracking could be announced at any time.