In one of the largest environmental victories in recent memory, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that he would ban hydraulic fracturing, an experimental method of natural gas extraction that’s come under heavy fire over the last several years from environmental and community groups in the state and across the country.
The announcement came after acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker released the results of a public health review that began in 2012. He claimed in a press conference Tuesday that, “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known,” calling fracking a “significant public health risk.” New York state has had a “temporary” moratorium on the practice since 2009, but organizers have been unrelenting in seeking a full ban. The Atlantic compiled some of the most startling findings in the 184-page report, including extensive evidence of well-water contamination from fracking, and its contributions to climate change and increased seismic activity.
The decision has been roundly praised by progressive groups, including New York’s Working Families Party, on whose ticket Cuomo controversially ran in November. Director Bill Lipton said of the decision, “Every New Yorker who spoke up, called their lawmakers, boarded a bus to Albany, signed a petition or put a sign in their yard deserves enormous credit.” Cuomo, a Democrat, is no doubt eager to rekindle ties with his party’s left wing after a heated primary battle with Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, a favorite for the WFP nomination who opposed fracking and won a third of the vote.
The real victory, though, belongs to the dedicated anti-fracking activists, including the coalition group New Yorkers Against Fracking, which has worked tirelessly over the last six years to produce Tuesday’s decision. The movement — combined with an increasingly militant climate justice movement nationwide — has transformed what was once thought naïve fantasy into reality. The anti-fracking movement in New York was broader than any one group or even coalition, lining up a sizeable array of legal and medical professionals, celebrities and cross-issue alliances to create a groundswell of popular pressure that, ultimately, won out against well-funded industry lobbyists like America’s Natural Gas Alliance and the Anschutz Exploration Corp.
As Salon reports, aside from pressuring Cuomo and other New York officials, lawyers working with the movement have used local zoning ordinances to prevent fracking in 172 towns across the state. These de facto local bans were a compelling argument against what had long been hailed as a major benefit of fracking: jobs and economic recovery. Local bans had rendered 63 percent of the shale in New York off-limits, even if the moratorium had been lifted.
New Yorkers weren’t the only ones celebrating a victory against fracking. This week, too, officials in Quebec and New Brunswick responded to Canadian “fractivists,” issuing a ban and a moratorium, respectively.
While Vermont passed a ban back in 2012, this victory sets a powerful precedent for similar policies in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are home to both large chunks of the Marcellus Shale and persistent efforts to end extraction from it. Appropriately, Food and Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter called New York “a bellwether state for fracking nationally” in a blog post this week. The fight in New York has also catalyzed a national conversation on fracking, with public support for the practice plummeting.
Cuomo has called anti-fracking activists “literally the most prevalent protest group in the state by far.” In a rare moment of candor, he went on to say “I literally see them everywhere I go,” admitting that his daughter joked when pulling up to one event that, ‘We must be in the wrong place. There’s no fracking protesters.’” Cuomo has long stated his intent to defer to experts on the issue, stating “let’s bring the emotion down,” referring to impassioned protesters. What he didn’t realize is that the “emotion,” the movement, agreed with the experts: there’s no place for fracking in New York. With the ban all but in place, activists can now set their sights on other states, and other types of extraction.