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How Smart NYS Fracktivists Beat Cuomo And Won The Fracking War

Illustration for article titled How Smart NYS Fracktivists Beat Cuomo And Won The Fracking War

Something amazing happened in Albany today, something very few people thought possible just a few months ago. New York State will indefinitely extend it's moratorium and essentially ban fracking. We aren't kicking the can down the road for more studies. We're basically banning the process outright. That's a huge victory for many thousands of anti-fracking "fracktivists" who have been fighting hard and smart, against really long odds, for years now.


Here's how they did it.

It wasn't that long ago, say 2007 or so, when fracking was an issue that wasn't really on anyone's radar, though there was enough concern for the state to place a moratorium on the practice in 2008.


That began to change with the release of Josh Fox's "Gasland" documentary in 2010. That film brought the issue into focus for many people across the country and especially here in New York. That footage of tap water catching fire opened many, many eyes to what was at stake and one could sense a movement beginning to build not long after the film's release.

At the same time, the oil and gas companies that wanted to get to fracking in the worst way. There were howls from the industry to lift the moratorium. There were similar pleas from local governments and citizens hoping to cash in on the fracking boom. The industry was telling anyone who would listen that the process was safe while telling local communities how they were going to become rich if the state would just lift the ban.


And there was a genuine eagerness to get the fracking ball rolling. I've been convinced for quite some time that one of the reasons the industry was so anxious to get fracking in New York is that they knew that clock was ticking. While they could point across the Pennsylvania border and show how many jobs were being created by the boom in Marcellus Shale fracking, they knew that the reality would soon become plain. The fracking boom in Pennsylvania has indeed created lots of jobs, jobs the long left behind communities in New York's Southern Tier would desperately like to have.

But fracking has also wreaked havoc in the Pennsylvania countryside, creating an increasingly toxic nightmare. The fracking boosters knew it was only a matter of time that the gap between their sunny claims of safety and the toxic reality of the Pennsylvania shale boom would become too great to ignore any longer. It was easy for the industry to make claims about the safety of fracking back when the science was rather thin. The science would not remain thin forever, as they would one day learn.


As the frackers howled for the state to lift the moratorium, the anti-frackers began to get organized. People all over the state, many completely new to activism of any kind, began organizing against fracking right in their own backyards. Local anti-fracking organizations began springing up everywhere. Those local orgs began working together and statewide orgs like New Yorkers Against Fracking and Don't Frack New York began to form. Then existing statewide orgs like WFP and others took up the cause.

And then those local anti-fracking organizers began doing something brilliant, something that, in the end, may have been the single most important tactical move in the whole war, though I doubt very few people realized its significance at the time. They began pressuring their local city governments to ban fracking within their city limits using zoning laws or passing new ones if necessary. And they began to win those fights. Cities, towns and villages began using local laws to ban fracking locally.


The response from the industry was swift and backed with loads of cash and busloads of very expensive lawyers. They began challenging those local bans in court. And then something amazing happened. The industry's court challenge to the fracking bans in the small towns of Dryden and Middlefield went all the way to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. In huge win for the anti-fracking movement, the court sided with the towns over the industry by upholding their local fracking bans. That precedent-setting ruling back in June of this year meant that any local government did indeed have the right to ban fracking within their municipal limits. This was seen as huge development at the time. I think few people realized how huge it was until this afternoon. More on this in a bit.

Meanwhile, fracktivists were hounding Andrew Cuomo wherever he went in New York. They were relentless. Cuomo increasingly found that he simply could not appear in public anywhere in the state without a healthy contingent of anti-fracking protestors showing up to greet him. Night or day, rain or shine, on weekends and weekdays, from Montauk to Watertown. It was obvious that they were annoying the hell out of him and he let slip more than once that he basically hated their guts.


And Cuomo began to feel the heat. What once seemed like a forgone conclusion that Cuomo would eventually open up at least a portion of the Southern Tier's shale to fracking began to seem less sure. The fracktivists began to seriously limit Cuomo's freedom of movement on the issue because their relentless pressure made Cuomo have to start actually talking about fracking. Cuomo began paint himself into an ever smaller corner by parrying questions about his fracking stance by repeatedly pointing to a too-long-in-coming study on the health effects of fracking from the Department of Health.


And public opinion began to move as well. It was just a few years ago that New Yorkers were generally indifferent on the issue, though generally supportive, especially in Western New York. That needle really began to move in the anti-frackers favor in the last two years. It moved enough that the politicians had to begin taking firm stands one way or the other. All those local fights had done wonders in educating people about exactly what was at stake.

The entrance of Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu into this year's Democratic primary brought even more visibility to the issue as they fully embraced the fractivist message on fracking. And the movement embraced them right back. Take a look at the primary results map. Teachout won half the counties in the state and she did it in places like the Hudson Valley where anti-fracking sentiment is highest. The Teachout/Wu campaigns were fantastic amplifiers of the movement's message.


The culmination of this was laid bare during the sole debate in the governor's race when Cuomo was forced to fall back on the latest favorite dodge of the climate change deniers. "I'm not a scientist," Cuomo told the audience in Buffalo. "Let the science decide" on fracking, he said.

Cuomo had been completely out-maneuvered by the fracktivists now. He wasn't arguing jobs. He wasn't parroting the industry's claims of safety. He was frantically dodging in front of a statewide TV audience. The public mood had shifted. He was completely boxed in.


And that brings us to today. It was an odd scene, even by Albany standards. It was just Monday that Cuomo announced that the long-awaited DoH study and a decision of fracking would both be released by the end of 2014. And it was just last night that today's cabinet meeting would happen was announced. Speculation that the study would be released today began overnight. I'm not sure many people imagined that we would get both the study and the decision at the same time, but that's indeed what we got.


In a really weird move, Cuomo opened the meeting by listing all the issues they'd be discussing today and added, almost as an afterthought, that we'd have "an update on fracking" at the end.

That update began with DEC head Joe Martens showing maps of the Marcellus in the Southern Tier and then methodically shading parts of it out as he listed why these parcels couldn't be considered for fracking. He took pieces off the map for a number of reasons. They were in state parks. They were in the NYC or Syracuse watersheds. The recoverable deposits were too close to the surface. He talked about all the "adverse effects" of fracking that could become "widespread."


All of a sudden, it started looking pretty dire for the frackers.

And then he took all the towns and cities in the area who had banned fracking within their city limits off the map. This proved to be the real cherry on top of his argument. When he took all of those towns off the map, only 37% of the Southern Tier's shale was left for possible fracking. He mentioned that the Court of Appeals had upheld the right of municipalities to ban the process and then stated the prospects for fracking in the area are "uncertain at best." He twisted the dagger a bit by adding that the financial benefits of fracking are "far lower than originally forecast."


In the end, all those local bans played a huge part in making fracking far less attractive financially and the head of the DEC made it a point to mention that fact repeatedly.

Department of Health head Howard Zucker drove the final nail in the fracking coffin by declaring that he would not live in a community that was fracking and wouldn't let his children play in the soil in one either. "I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York."


Boom. Game, set, match.

It was the culmination of an epic fight that lasted years. On one side was a very well financed industry used to getting whatever it wants. The industry always knew that the science would one day catch up with their rosy claims about how safe fracking was. That day was today when Howard Zucker basically called their bluff on the science.


And the other side were tens of thousands of citizens who fought like hell, who were told they had no chance, who were told they were nuts and who still came fighting from all directions at the man who would ultimately decide the future fracking in New York.

  • They got organized locally.
  • They got organized statewide.
  • They correctly identified the significant points of leverage in the machines and applied pressure that never stopped.
  • They took their case to their own city halls and made the issue real for people.
  • They backed a primary candidate with a funny name and no money who won half the counties in the state while amplifying the fracktivist message.
  • They changed the debate.
  • They moved public opinion significantly.
  • They severely restricted Cuomo's freedom of movement on the issue.
  • They completely out-maneuvered Andrew Cuomo, eventually placing him in such a tight position that his only possible option was to defer to the science.

And, make no mistake, the science won today.

In the end, accepting the science was the only play left for Cuomo.

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(image via postcarddiva)

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