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.