This is a story about water, the land surrounding it, and the lives it sustains. Clean water should be a right: there is no life without it. New York is what you might call a “water state.” Its rivers and their tributaries start with the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware and the Susquehanna. The best known of its lakes are Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, Lake George and the Finger Lakes. Its brooks, creeks and trout streams are fishermen’s lore.
Far below this rippling wealth there’s a vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale. Stretching through southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the shale contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life that died 400 million years ago. Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a technology invented by Halliburton Corporation: high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” for short.
Fracking uses prodigious amounts of water laced with sand and a startling menu of poisonous chemicals to blast the methane out of the shale. At hyperbaric bomb-like pressures, this technology propels five to seven million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water a mile or so down a drill hole into the shale.
Up comes the methane — along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals and other substances that were also in the shale, including radioactive elements and carcinogens. There are 400,000 such wells in the United States. Surrounded by rumbling machinery and serviced by tens of thousands of diesel trucks, this nightmare technology for energy release has turned rural areas in 34 U.S. states into toxic industrial zones.
Shale gas isn’t the conventional kind that lit your grandmother’s stove. It’s one of those “extreme energy” forms, so difficult to produce that merely accessing it poses unprecedented dangers to the planet. In every fracking state except New York, where a moratorium against the process has been in effect since 2010, the gas industry has contaminated ground water, sickened people, poisoned livestock and killed wildlife.
At a time when the International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the Earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its own story. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes: with eleven happening in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.
But for once, this story isn’t about tragedy. It’s about a resistance movement that has arisen to challenge some of the most powerful corporations in history.
New York’s ‘Little Revolution’
While most anti-fracking activists have focused on responding to harms already done, New York State’s resistance has been waging a battle to keep harm at bay. Jack Ossont, a former helicopter pilot, has been active all his life in the state’s environmental and social battles. He calls fracking “the tsunami issue of New York. It washes across the entire landscape.”
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, terms the movement “the biggest since abolition and women’s rights in New York.” This past November, when the Heinz Foundation awarded Steingraber $100,000 for her environmental activism, she gave it to the anti-fracking community.
Last October, I discovered a sprawl of loosely connected, grassroots groups whose names announce their counties and their long-term vision: Sustainable Otsego, Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, Chenango Community Action for Renewable Energy, Gas-Free Seneca, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Catskill Mountainkeeper. Of just those few (there are many more), only the last has a paid staff. All the others are run by volunteers.
“In Middlefield, we’re nothing special. We’re just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this,” says Kelly Branigan, co-founder of the group Middlefield Neighbors. Her organization helped spearhead one of the movement’s central campaigns: using local zoning ordinances to ban fracking. “It’s inspiring, it’s awesome, and it’s America— its own little revolution.”
Consider this an environmental Occupy Wall Street. It knows no divisions of social class or political affiliation. Everyone needs clean water — farmers and professors, journalists and teachers, innkeepers and brewery owners. Actors and Catskill residents Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger have joined the movement. Josh Fox, also of the Catskills, has brought the fracking industry and its victims to international audiences through his award-winning documentary film Gasland. “Fracking is a pretty scary prospect,” says Wes Gillingham, planning director for Catskill Mountainkeeper. “It’s created a community of people that wouldn’t have existed before.”
About four years ago, sheltered by Patterson’s stay against fracking, small discussion groups began in people’s homes. At that time, only a few activists were advocating outright bans on fracking: the rest of the fledgling movement was more cautiously advocating temporary moratoria.
Since then, a veritable ban cascade has washed across the state. And in local elections last November, scores of anti-fracking candidates, many of whom had never run for office before, displaced pro-gas incumbents in positions as town councilors, town supervisors and county legislators. As the movement has grown in strength and influence, gas corporations like Exxon Mobil and Conoco Philips, along with Marcellus Shale corporations like Chesapeake Energy, have spent millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying and political campaign contributions to counter it.
Autumn Stoscheck, a young organic apple farmer from the village of Van Etten just south of New York’s Finger Lakes, had none of this in mind in 2008 when she invited a group of neighbors to her living room to talk about fracking. She’d simply heard enough about the process to be terrified. Like other informal fracking meetings that were launched that year, this was a “listening group.” Its ground rules: listen, talk, but don’t criticize. “There was a combination of landowners, farmers like us, and young anarchist-activists with experience in other movements,” she told me. Stoscheck’s neighbors knew nothing about fracking, but “they were really mistrustful of the government and large gas corporations and felt they were in collusion.”
These groups became the first grassroots anti-fracking organizations. Stoscheck and her colleagues called theirs Shaleshock. One of its first achievements was a PowerPoint presentation, “Drilling 101,” which introduces viewers to the Marcellus Shale and what hydraulic fracturing does to it.
When Helen Slottje, a 44-year-old lawyer, saw “Drilling 101” at a Shaleshock forum in 2009, she was “horrified.” She and her husband David had abandoned their corporate law careers to move to Ithaca in 2000. “We traded corporate law practice in Boston for New York State and less stressful work— or so we thought. New York’s beauty seemed worth it.” When news reports about fracking started appearing, the Slottjes thought about leaving. “I kept saying, ‘What’ll happen if fracking comes to New York? We’ll have to move.’” “Drilling 101” made her reconsider. Then she visited Dimock, Penn., 70 miles southeast of Ithaca and that sealed the deal.
By 2009, Dimock, a picturesque rural village, had become a fracking hell. Houston-based Cabot Oil & Energy had started drilling there the year before. Shortly after, people started to notice that their drinking water had darkened. Some began experiencing bouts of dizziness and headaches; others developed sores after bathing.
For a while, Cabot trucked water to Dimock’s residents, but stopped in November when a judge declined to order the company to continue deliveries. The Environmental Protection Agency was going to start water service to Dimock in the first week of January, but withdrew the offer, claiming further water tests were needed. Outraged New Yorkers organized water caravans to help their besieged neighbors.
“When I went to Dimock,” says Slottje, “I saw well-drilling, huge trucks, muddy crisscrossing pipeline paths cutting through the woods, disposal pits, sites of diesel spills, dusty coatings on plants, noisy compressor stations— you name it. So I decided to put my legal background to work to prevent the same thing from happening where I lived. We’d been corporate lawyers before. We know the sort of resources the energy corporations have. The grassroots people have nothing. And they have this behemoth coming at them.”
In May 2009, the Slottjes became full-time pro bono lawyers for the movement. One of their first services was to reinterpret New York’s constitutional home rule provision, which had allowed local ordinances to trump state laws until 1981. In that year, the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s Division of Mineral Resources exempted gas corporations from local restrictions.
“I spent thousands of hours on the research,” says Slottje. “And then last August we were brave enough to go public and say the emperor has no clothes.” The Slottjes’ reinterpretation of the provision was simple enough: the state regulates the gas industry; towns and villages can’t regulate it, but what they can do is keep its operations off their land through the use of zoning ordinances.
Zoning Out Fracking
The town of Ulysses is nestled in the heart of the state’s burgeoning wine country in the Finger Lakes region. In 2010, a grassroots group, Concerned Citizens of Ulysses (CCU), asked the Slottjes to speak with members of the town board, which controls Ulysses’ planning and zoning laws.
The board members opposed fracking, but didn’t know how to prevent it. While the board talked with the Slottjes, CCU activists drafted a petition. If enough registered Ulysses voters signed on, the board would have the popular backing it needed to declare a ban. A six-month-long door-to-door campaign followed.
“There was a lot of education going on in Ulysses at the town board and at forums, as we were going house to house. Even people who would sign the petition would say, ‘Tell me a little bit more about it.’ And in that next 15 to 20 minutes you would do a whole lot more education.” In the end, 1,500 out of 3,000 registered voters signed. This past summer the Ulysses town board voted to ban fracking.
Middlefield, 119 miles east of Ulysses and home of the grassroots group Middlefield Neighbors, enacted a similar ban. So did Dryden, 22 miles east of Ulysses. An out-of-state gas corporation that leased land for drilling in Dryden is suing to get the zoning ban declared illegal. A Middlefield landowner is suing that town on the same basis. The cases are pending.
Meanwhile bans proliferate. Six upstate New York counties have zoned out fracking, including Binghamton, which declared a ban in December. Ommegang, an organic brewery in Cooperstown, mobilized 300 other businesses, including Cooperstown’s Chamber of Commerce, to support more bans in the region.
Chefs for the Marcellus, a group headed by Food Network star Mario Batali, has urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking at the state level. “Call it home-rule democracy,” says Adrian Kuzminsky, chair of the Cooperstown-based organization Sustainable Otsego. “If local communities can seize control over their destinies, a giant step will have been taken toward a sustainable future.”
This past October, activists prepared to take on the state’s DEC. That agency is caught in a perpetual conflict of interest: on the one hand, protecting the environment; on the other, regulating the industries that exploit it. In fact, the 1981 legislation exempting gas corporations from New York’s home rule had been written by Greg Sovas, then head of DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources.
Guidelines for the hydraulic fracturing industry were first issued by the department in late 2009 and rejected in 2010 under withering public criticism. Then-Governor David Paterson declared a moratorium on fracking in the state pending DEC revisions. Revised guidelines appeared this past September in the form of 1,537 mind-numbing pages bearing the title, “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement,” commonly abbreviated as SGEIS.
A World of Water
In study groups and online tutorials, activists prepared to write letters of commentary and protest to the DEC and Governor Cuomo, and to speak at public hearings that the department was organizing around the state. Pro-gas speakers predictably focused on the jobs that fracking would create.
Opponents included an impressive line-up of scientists (among them Robert Howarth, co-author of last year’s landmark Cornell University study, which established the staggering greenhouse-gas footprint of fracking), engineers, lawyers and other professionals. A letter sent to Cuomo by 250 New York State physicians and medical professionals deplored the DEC’s failure to attend to the public health impacts of fracking.
In one public agency meeting, part-time Cooperstown resident James “Chip” Northrup, a retired manager for Atlantic Richfield (ARCO, America’s seventh largest oil corporation), called the performances of pro-gas speakers “disgraceful” and the SGEIS “junk science.” Citing an industry study that shows 25 percent of frack wells leak after five years and 40 percent after eight, he said, “Everybody in the industry knows that gas drilling pollutes groundwater.”
As 2012 began, the movement was demanding that the department withdraw the SGEIS. In mid-January, DEC spokesperson Lisa King said that once all the comments are tallied, “We expect the total to be more than 40,000.” Earlier, agency officials had told The New York Times they didn’t know of any other issue that had received even 1,000 comments. Gannett’s Albany Bureau has reported that anti-drilling submissions outnumber those of drilling supporters by at least ten to one.
Sustainable Otsego’s website lists 52 serious and fatal flaws in the document. A letter posted on the website of Toxics Targeting (toxicstargeting.com), an environmental database service in Ithaca, elaborately details 17 major SGEIS flaws. By Jan. 10, when the Toxics Targeting letter was sent to the DEC and the Governor, it had more than 22,000 signatures representing government officials, professional and civic organizations, and individuals. (The DEC counts this letter with its signatures as only one of the 40,000 comments.)
At a Nov. 17 rally in Trenton, N.J., to celebrate the postponement of a vote on allowing fracking in the Delaware River Basin, activists from Pennsylvania and New York pledged future civil disobedience. “The broad coalition of anti-frackers has been operating on multi-levels all at once,” says Sustainable Otsego’s chair, Adrian Kuzminsky. If the governor approves the SGEIS “there will be massive disillusionment with the state government and Cuomo, and from what I’m hearing there will be ‘direct action’ and civil disobedience in some quarters.”
Should the government approve the SGEIS in its current form, lawsuits are planned against the DEC. And a brief “Occupy DEC” event that took place in the state capital, Albany, on Jan. 12 may have set the tone for the future. Meanwhile, some activists are already working on legislation that would criminalize fracking.
This past November, Sandra Steingraber told a crowd of hundreds of activists why she was donating her $100,000 Heinz Award to the movement. The money, she said, “enables speech, emboldens activism, and recognizes that true security for our children lies in preserving the … ecology of our planet.”
She raised a jar of water. “This is what my kids are made of. They are made of water. They are made of the food that is grown in the county that I live in. And they are made of air. We inhale a pint of atmosphere with every breath we take. … And when you poison these things, you poison us. That is a violation of our human rights, and that is why this is the civil rights issue of our day.”
Ellen Cantarow is a Boston-based journalist who examines the effects of oil and gas corporations.
A version of this article was originally published on TomDispatch.com.