On a hot and breezy August morning, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in Albany calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Activists chanted anti-fracking fight songs and carried banners highlighting the dangers of the gas drilling practice. It was in many ways like the handful of rallies that had come before it.
But there was one subtle difference that tracked a trend in the anti-fracking movement. The first hint came with one of the first speakers: Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist who started the grassroots group 350.org to press for action on climate change. Last year, McKibben and his group organized a campaign that took the arcane local issue of an oil pipeline running through Nebraska and turned it into a national story, culminating in one of the environmental movement’s largest acts of civil disobedience ever, when an estimated 10,000 activists circled the White House in a human chain last November. In his speech at the August rally, McKibben called this a “gut-check” moment for Cuomo and suggested that banning fracking would make him a leader on the national, even international stage.
The main event in Albany that day was the presentation of a pledge, signed by more than 3,000 New Yorkers and recited in front of the State Capitol, vowing to take whatever nonviolent actions necessary to prevent energy companies from fracking their first wells in the state. “That’s amazing,” McKibben told a rowdy crowd. “Those are people that have said, ‘If I have to, I will go to jail. We are not going to let this happen.’” A moratorium has blocked fracking in New York since 2008, and Cuomo’s administration is expected to announce before the end of this year whether drilling can proceed.
Taking a page from 350.org’s Keystone XL pipeline campaign, the fracktivists have turned increasingly to direct action and civil disobedience to make sure Cuomo and leaders in other states feel the heat.
Over the summer, a loose network of mostly young organizers began conducting a series of disruptive actions across the Northeast. In June a woman in Ohio chained her arms around barrels of concrete outside a waste disposal site. The following month, activists with Earth First! blocked entry to a fracking site in Pennsylvania for a day. But the August rally, led by a broad coalition of groups, represents a possible bridge to a broader movement. The crowd featured just as many retirees and families as it did college-age activists. The hope is that the prospect of a grandmother getting locked up might make Cuomo blink.
From the beginning, fracking has been more contentious in New York than in other states. In 2008 energy companies had just begun bringing hydraulic fracturing to the mid-Atlantic from Texas, Wyoming and other states. A few people began warning about the dangers of shooting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water into the earth. New York was on the verge of allowing fracking when Governor David Paterson, Cuomo’s predecessor, put all drilling on hold pending an environmental review. It remains the only state with significant shale gas reserves to forbid energy companies from fracking. As the review proceeded, a grassroots movement turned progressively more local, passing more than 100 municipal fracking bans or moratoriums. But with the possibility that drilling could proceed anyway, some residents want to take the movement further.
“If your community is being attacked and your federal government refuses to protect you and your state government fails to protect you, you turn to your county government and your community around you,” says Sandra Steingraber, an Ithaca-based environmental writer turned activist who wrote the first draft of the pledge against fracking. But Steingraber and her allies are concerned that local efforts won’t be enough. “In my mind, direct action is a last resort,” she says.
Since 2008 the dangers of fracking have only become more apparent. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time linked the practice directly to groundwater pollution at a site in Wyoming where energy companies had fracked as shallowly as 1,200 feet down (water wells in the area are nearly as deep). Earlier that year, public health researchers in Colorado found that a drilling project planned in a Rocky Mountain town would likely harm residents’ health, with air pollution from fracking operations a chief concern. Intensive drilling and fracking have pushed smog levels in some rural western valleys beyond those in Los Angeles. Drilling has spoiled water wells across the country, though it’s often unclear whether fracking itself, just one part of the drilling process, is to blame. All this has led New York down the arduous road of trying to develop regulations to prevent it from happening there.
“It was a NIMBY [Not in My Backyard] issue at the beginning,” says Ramsay Adams, executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, one of the first New York groups to raise the alarm. A couple of years ago, Adams asked McKibben to attend a fracking event and the relationship grew from there. By now, a smattering of New York grassroots activists have formed coalitions that are linking groups from across the country. The Albany event drew anti-frackers from Ohio and California, including Jennifer Krill, the head of Earthworks, a national environmental group that has pushed for stronger fracking regulations in Texas, New Mexico and other states.
There are hints of growing disturbance elsewhere, too. Activists in Colorado have said they are ramping up opposition to drilling in that state. National groups are planning a series of public protests for the rest of the year, but haven’t announced specific acts of civil disobedience.
It remains unclear whether the New York fractivists can muster the same determination and discipline as 350.org brought to Washington last year, when it staged an orderly series of more than 1,000 arrests. In Albany, just as many protesters said they were reluctant to get arrested as said they would consider it. But the Keystone XL protest showed that a relative handful of well-organized activists can shift federal policy as long as they have a broad base supporting them. In early 2011 few had heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. By November, President Obama shocked the energy industry and everyone who follows it by announcing that his administration would not approve the pipeline without a more thorough review.
In June, the New York Times reported that Cuomo was prepared to allow fracking in a few counties along the Pennsylvania border where the gas is richest and the resistance weakest. His administration denies that it has reached any decision. Nationally, the anti-fracking movement’s gains have been incremental—a major environmental study and a series of more restrictive rules on the federal level and regulatory overhauls in several states (those that have banned the practice do not have extensive gas reserves). A decision by Cuomo to ban fracking would be momentous. A decision to maintain a moratorium pending yet further review, less so—although an increasingly restive anti-fracking movement is unlikely to let any review process pass quietly. For those living above the shale, the stakes could not be higher. “It’s one of those decisions,” McKibben said, “that will be recorded in geologic time.”