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The Secret War of Anti-Fracking Activists

Dedicated activists in upstate New York are fighting back against big energy companies with what else? Zoning ordinances and petitions. And it's working.

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 3:30 PM EST
Activists in New York protest Gov. Cuomo's fracking plans in August.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

There's a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement. It's a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life.

In the end, this conflict may matter more than those in Iraq and Afghanistan ever did. And yet it's taking place far from newspaper front pages and with hardly a notice on the nightly news. Nor is it being fought in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia, but in small hamlets in upstate New York. There, a loose network of activists is waging a guerrilla campaign not with improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, but with zoning ordinances and petitions.

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The weaponry may be humdrum, but the stakes couldn't be higher. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.

All summer long, the climate-change nightmares came on fast and furious. Once-fertile swathes of American heartland baked into an aridity reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of fish dead in overheated streams. Six million acres in the West consumed by wildfires. In September, a report commissioned by 20 governments predicted that as many as 100 million people across the world could die by 2030 if fossil-fuel consumption isn't reduced. And all of this was before superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area and the Jersey shore.

Washington's leadership, when it comes to climate change, is already mired in failure. President Obama permitted oil giant BP to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while Shell was allowed to begin drilling tests in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. At the moment, the best hope for placing restraints on climate change lies with grassroots movements.

In January, I chronicled upstate New York's homegrown resistance to high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an extreme-energy technology that extracts methane ("natural gas") from the Earth's deepest regions. Since then, local opposition has continued to face off against the energy industry and state government in a way that may set the tone for the rest of the country in the decades ahead. In small hamlets and tiny towns you've never heard of, grassroots activists are making a stand in what could be the beginning of a final showdown for Earth's future.

Frack Fight 2012

New York isn't just another state. Its largest city is the world's financial capital. Six of its former governors have gone on to the presidency and Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to have his sights set on a run for the White House, possibly in 2016. It also has a history of movements, from abolition and women's suffrage in the nineteenth century to Occupy in the twenty-first. Its environmental campaigns have included the watershed Storm King Mountain case, in which activists defeated Con Edison's plan to carve a giant facility into the face of that Hudson River landmark. The decision established the right of anyone to litigate on behalf of the environment.

Today, that activist legacy is evident in a grassroots insurgency in upstate New York, a struggle by ordinary Americans to protect what remains of their democracy and the Earth's fragile environment from giant corporations intent on wrecking both. On one side stands New York's anti-fracking community; on the other, the natural gas industry, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, and New York's industry-allied Joint Landowners Coalition.

As for Governor Cuomo, he has managed to anger both sides. He seemed to bow to industry this past June by hinting that he would end a 2010 moratorium on fracking introduced by his predecessor David Paterson and open the state to the process; then, in October, he appeared to retreat after furious protests staged in Washington D.C., as well as Albany, Binghamton, and other upstate towns.

"I have never seen [an environmental movement] spread with such wildfire as this," says Robert Boyle, a legendary environmental activist and journalist who was central in the Storm King case and founded Riverkeeper, the prototype for all later river-guardian organizations. "It took me 13 or 14 years to get the first Riverkeeper going. Fracking isn't like that. It's like lighting a train of powder."

Developed in 2008 and vastly more expansive in its infrastructure than the purely vertical form of fracking invented by Halliburton Corporation in the 1940s, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing is a land-devouring, water-squandering technology with a greenhouse gas footprint greater than that of coal. The process begins by propelling one to nine million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water at hyperbaric bomb-like pressures a mile or more beneath Earth's surface. Most of that fluid stays underground. Of the remainder, next to nothing is ever again available for irrigation or drinking. A recent report by the independent, nonpartisan US Government Accountability Office concluded that fracking poses serious risks to health and the environment.

New York State's grassroots resistance to fracking began about four years ago around kitchen tables and in living rooms as neighbors started talking about this frightening technology. Shallow drilling for easily obtainable gas had been done for decades in the state, but this gargantuan industrial effort represented something else again.

Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University's Department of Engineering, co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, calls this new form of fracking an unparalleled danger to the environment and human health. "There's much more land clearing, much more devastation of forests and fields. . . thousands of miles of pipelines. . . many compressor stations [that] require burning enormous quantities of diesel. . . [emitting] hydrocarbons into the atmosphere." He adds that it's a case of "the health of many versus the wealth of a few."

Against that wealth stands a movement of the 99%—farmers, physicists, journalists, teachers, librarians, innkeepers, brewery owners, and engineers. "In Middlefield we're nothing special," says Kelly Branigan, a realtor who last year founded a group called Middlefield Neighbors. "We're just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this. It's inspiring, it's awesome, and it's America—its own little revolution."

 

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