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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 2:30 PM EST

Last year, Middlefield became one of New York's first towns to use the humblest of tools, zoning ordinances, to beat back fracking. Previously, that had seemed like an impossible task for ordinary people. In 1981, the state had exempted gas corporations from New York's constitutionally guaranteed home rule under which town ordinances trump state law. In 2011, however, Ithaca-based lawyers Helen and David Slottje overturned that gas-cozy law by establishing that, while the state regulates industry, towns can use their zoning powers to keep it out. Since then, a cascade of bans and moratoria—more than 140 in all—have protected towns all over New York from high-volume frack drilling.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban. Its residents typify the grassroots resistance of upstate New York.

"I'm very skeptical that multinational corporations have the best interests of communities at heart," Don Barber, Caroline's Supervisor, told me recently. "The federal government sold [Americans] out when they exempted fracking from the Clean Water and Air Acts," he added. "Federal and state governments are not advocating for the civil society. There's only one level left. That's the local government, and it puts a tremendous load on our shoulders."

Caroline's Deputy Supervisor, Dominic Frongillo, sees local resistance in global terms. "We're unexpectedly finding ourselves in the ground zero for climate change," he says. "It used to be somewhere else, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands in Alberta, Canada. But now...it's right here under our feet in upstate New York. The line is drawn here. We can't keep escaping the fossil fuel industry. You can't move other places, you just have to dig in where you are."

Two years of pre-ban work in Caroline included an election that replaced pro-drilling members of the town board with fracking opponents, public education forums, and a six-month petition drive. "We knocked on every single door two or three times," recalls Bill Podulka, a retired physicist who co-founded the town's resistance organization, ROUSE (Residents Opposed to Unsafe Shale Gas Extraction). "Many people were opposed to gas-drilling but were afraid to speak out, not realizing that the folks concerned were a silent majority." In the end, 71% of those approached signed the petition, which requested a ban.

On September 11th, a final debate between drilling opponents and proponents took place, after which Barber called for the vote. A ban was overwhelmingly endorsed. "For the first time," he told the crowd gathered in Caroline's white clapboard town hall, "I will be voting to change the balance of rights between individuals and civil society. This is because of the impacts of fracking on health and the environment. And the majority of our citizens have voted to pass the ban." The board then ruled 4 to 1 in favor.

Stealth Invasion

About a year and a half ago, as Caroline and other towns were moving to protect their land from the industry, XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil Corporation, began preparing for a possible fracking future in the state. It eyed tree-shaded, Oquaga Creek, a trout-laden Delaware tributary in upper New York State's Sanford County, leased the land, and applied to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) for a water-withdrawal permit. XTO required, it said, a quarter of a million gallons of water from the creek every day for its hydraulic fracturing operations.

Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, found out about the XTO application and spread the word. Within days, the DRBC received 7,900 letters of outrage. On June 1, 2011, hundreds of citizens, organized by grassroots anti-frackers, packed a hearing in Deposit, a village in Sanford Township that lies at the confluence of the creek and the western branch of the Delaware River. Only two people spoke at the meeting in favor of XTO. One was the Supervisor (mayor) of Sanford, Dewey Decker. He applauded the XTO application and denounced protestors as "outsiders." He is among a group of landowners who have leased land to XTO for hundreds of millions of dollars. (Decker refused to be interviewed for this article.) The rest of the crowd spoke up for the creek, its fish, and its wildlife. The Delaware River Basin Commission indefinitely tabled the XTO application.

While a grassroots victory, the episode also served as a warning about how determined the industry is to move forward with fracking plans despite the state-enforced moratorium still in place. As a result, Caroline and other towns are continuing to develop local anti-fracking measures, since they know that the 2010 ban on the process will end whenever Governor Cuomo okays rules currently being written by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

When it comes to those rules and fracking more generally, the DEC has a conflict of interest. While it is supposed to protect the environment, it is also tasked with regulating the very industries that exploit it through the agency's Mineral Resources Division. Last year, the DEC received over 80,000 written comments on the latest draft of its guidelines for the industry, the 1,500-page "SGEIS" (which stands for "Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement"). Drilling opponents outnumbered proponents 10 to 1. The deluge was a record in the agency's history.

Activists weren't the only ones with a keen interest in the SGEIS, however. Documents obtained through New York's Freedom of Information Law indicate that, in mid-August 2011, six weeks before the DEC made its statement public, the agency shared detailed summaries of it with gas corporation representatives, giving the industry a chance to influence the final document before it went public.

Two days before the SGEIS was opened to public scrutiny, an attorney for the Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation and other companies asked regulators to "reduce or eliminate" a requirement for the sophisticated testing of fracking fluids. Such fluids are laden with toxins, including carcinogens, which storms could wash away from drilling sites—an especially grim prospect given the catastrophic flooding experienced in the state over the last three years.

At the same time, two upstate New York journalists revealed that Bradley Field, the head of the DEC's Mineral Resources Division, had signed a petition that denied the existence of climate change. Formerly of Getty Oil and Marathon Oil, Field also serves as the state's representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council, both industry fronts which maintain that fracking is benign. As this was coming to light, state officials anonymously leaked word of a plan to open five counties on New York's border with Pennsylvania to fracking as long as communities there supported the technology.

This is What Autocracy Looks Like

In May 2012, Dewey Decker and his board passed a resolution pledging that the town of Sanford would take no action against fracking, while awaiting the decision of the DEC. There was no prior notice. Citizens were left to read about it in their local papers. "You wake up the next morning and say, ‘What happened?'" commented Doug Vitarious, a retired Sanford elementary school teacher.

In June, a headline in the Deposit Courier, a Sanford paper, read "Local Officials in Eligible Communities Approve Pro-Drilling Resolutions." Accompanying the piece was a map of towns that had passed such resolutions. The subscript under the map read: "Joint Landowners Coalition of N.Y." The JLCNY is the state's grassroots gas industry ally, whose stated mission is to "foster... the common interest... as it pertains to natural gas development." Decker represents the organization in Sanford.

During the summer, Vitarious and other citizens asked their town board where the resolution had originated, but were met with silence. They requested that the board rescind the resolution and conduct a referendum. Decker refused.

By the end of August, 43 towns in the region had passed resolutions modeled on one appearing at the JLCNY website. It stipulates that at the local level "no moratorium on hydraulic fracturing will be put in place before the state of New York has made it's [sic] decision." Under New York's Freedom of Information Law, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the National Resources Defense Council obtained records from Sanford and two other towns about how they achieved their objectives. The records, says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, "detail contacts between gas industry operatives and officials."

Two months before superstorm Sandy swamped parts of the state, Sue Rapp, a psychotherapist from the town of Vestal, told me that flooding worries her as much as anything else about fracking. Upper New York State suffered flooding in 2010 and 2011. And then came Sandy. Floods turn millions of gallons of fracking waste-water for which there is no safe storage into streams of poisons that wash into waterways.

Unlike Sanford's board, Vestal's has not formally blocked debate. It has heard arguments for a moratorium by Rapp and an organization she co-founded, Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VERSE), as well as pleas for a moratorium by physicians and academics. Its reaction, however, has simply been to sit on its hands, waiting for the DEC and Cuomo to make a final decision. This amounts to adopting the JLCNY position in all but formal vote. "What is happening?" asked Rapp rhetorically at a demonstration in Binghamton this past September. "They are trying to shut us down. But we do vote and we will vote. We do not constitute [what pro-drillers call] the tyranny of the majority, but simply the majority. That is called democracy."

Demonstrations against Cuomo's frack plan, which drew thousands to Washington D.C., Albany, and elsewhere in New York, included pledges to commit sustained acts of civil disobedience should the governor carry out plans to open the Pennsylvania border area of the state to fracking. At the end of September, the New York Times announced that Cuomo had retreated from his June stance. The report credited the state's grassroots movement for his change of mind. Legendary for his toughness and political smarts, the governor will confront a political challenge in the coming months. Either he will please gas-industry supporters or his Democratic base. Whichever way he goes, it could affect his chances for the White House.

The stakes, however, are far larger than Cuomo's presidential aspirations. Opening any part of the state to fracking will certainly damage the local environment. More importantly, a grassroots win in New York State could open the door to a nationwide anti-fracking surge. A loss might, in the long run, result in a cascade of environmental degradation beyond the planet's ability to cope. As unlikely as it sounds, the fate of the Earth may rest with the residents of Middlefield, Caroline, Vestal, and scores of tiny villages and small towns you've never heard of.

"All eyes are on New York," says Chris Burger, a former Broome County legislator and one of a small group who persuaded New York's last governor, David Paterson, to pass the state's moratorium on fracking. "This is the biggest environmental issue New York has ever faced [and not just] New York, the nation, and the world. If it's going to be stopped, it will be stopped here."

Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. A TomDispatch regular, her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Grand Street, Mother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, and ZNet, and anthologized by the South End Press. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral-history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, published in 1981 by The Feminist Press/McGraw-Hill, widely anthologized, and still in print.

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