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A loose collection of groups makes up state's fracking opposition

Fracking hearing protest.JPG
Matt Richmond

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

“When we first drove into Skaneateles, I looked around and I said 'I think I can live here,'” said Gorr. “And so we did.”

But not long after they moved to nearby town of Niles, the Gorrs got an unwelcome surprise. It turns out their new home was sitting on top of the Marcellus Shale and the surrounding area could be hydrofracked for natural gas. Hydrofracking is an extraction process that pumped millions of gallons of sand and water deep underground to break up and collect fossil fuel.

Gorr says he was never politically active, but that quickly changed.

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

The petition asked 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.

“I’m hopeful next month the board will then vote on the ban and will vote for it,” Gorr says.

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.

Bottom-up activism

While 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 the state. Dozens of small groups have formed with names like Sustainable Otsego, Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance, and 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, who 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 in New York state is at a town board level, with people who had questions about shale gas development,” said Wilber. “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, said Wilbur – they pressured Albany with tens of thousands of public comments. 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. and I think the political pressure comes from the grassroots pressure,” Wilber added.

Shifting strategy

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.

“It’s a real shift from maybe we can do this, maybe we can’t, to we can do this, we need to do this, why hasn’t our town done this yet,” said Slottje.

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. Cornell University’s Rich Stedman, who studies social issues related to the environment, said the movement has turned an important corner.

“One of the things grassroots groups [are doing], and I think they are doing quite effectively in terms of Marcellus Shale development," he says, "is finding a way to make it a larger issue, changing it from a not in my backyard, 'NIMBY' kind of issue.”

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 Wilber. 

“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 that this idea of shale gas development in our backyard in New York state especially, has 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.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision on fracking could be announced at any time. 

This story comes from the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.