New York Becomes the First State in Nation to Ban Fracking

Posted Dec. 24, 2014

MP3 Interview with Sandra Steingraber, biologist, writer and anti-fracking organizer, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


On Dec. 17, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration banned hydraulic horizontal fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, making it the first state in the country with major shale gas deposits to take this step. The anti-fracking decision was announced by New York state’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, who said a years-long study had found "significant public health risks" associated with fracking. Holding up copies of scientific studies to bolster the decision, Dr. Zucker listed concerns about water contamination and air pollution, and said there was insufficient scientific evidence to suggest that fracking is safe.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, writer and one of the leaders of both statewide and local efforts to ban fracking. As part of the group, “We Are Seneca Lake,” she has engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and has been arrested with dozens of other activists in protests against the energy company Crestwood Midstream's plans to store millions of barrels of liquid petroleum gases in salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes in midstate New York. Seneca is one of the deepest lakes in the world – and the location of many regional wine vineyards and a magnet for tourism. Local activists fear that the proposed gas storage plan would devastate their rural economy.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Steingraber about Gov. Cuomo's decision to ban fracking, and her group’s ongoing campaign to stop the proposed gas storage project beneath Seneca Lake.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: He did not ban fracking by executive order, so the Environmental Impact Statement itself will reflect the new science in the Department of Health health review, which is part of the draft generic Environmental Impact Statement, so in its final form that impact statement will call for the prohibition of fracking. So to overturn that, one would have to start the Environmental Impact Statement all over again, which would require public hearings and all kinds of things, so this is an enduring ban on fracking in New York.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Your group, We Are Seneca Lake, is just one of many groups around the state that organized for a ban on fracking, and it seems to have worked.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: It was good science, plus powerful political pressure from his constituency. But those two things are not independent variables (chuckles) because the citizens are equipped with very good science, because there were several of us – Tony Ingraffea from Cornell, myself, several physicians including an endocrinologist – who went from town to town for years, speaking in church basements, junior high school auditoriums and to Rotary Clubs, debating the gas industry on the science, in universities and really brought the science to the people. And in the early days, we only had a handful of studies. When we began this, there were only six studies in the peer-reviewed medical literature, in the scientific literature; now there are 414 studies. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: when you have a few pieces, it's hard to see what the pattern is here. But as we begin to fill the picture in, it became really clear that this is a menace to the climate; it's a menace to people's health; it's contaminating air and water in ways that cannot be fixed through any regulations, because obviously, some parts of this infrastructure are unregulatable if only because it's our geological bedrock and you can't just go in there and regulate that. It's got fractures and fissures; it's got aquifers. It's a very complicated underground world; we don't have it all mapped; we can't control what happens when you blow it apart and inject it with lubricating, toxic chemicals. Nature has its own way with things like that.

So, as we got more and more damning evidence for risk and harm, we began to get this out to the public, not only in our PowerPoint presentations in church basements, but also, I helped lead people to submit comments on the draft regulations by laying the science out to people on websites and then translating it into plain English and inviting people to submit comments. So, through that process we submitted 204,000 comments on everything that was left out of the EIS. We basically buried it alive in public comments. And those were very well informed, scientifically based, public comments. But because we knew that regulatory agencies are often captured by the industries they attempt to regulate, we brought that science directly out to the citizenry so they could become really well informed.

This was a fight worth having. It was a fight for my children's future, for the place where we live, and for our air and our water. And I just had to fight with my whole heart. And I think when you do that, you can win. I think that's the message. We broke a spell here. The spell was that the oil and gas always gets what it wants. It's the biggest industry in the world; people can't fight the oil and gas industry. Well, we just did.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sandra Steingraber, How does this ban on fracking relate to your struggle to keep fracked gas, including methane, propane and butane, out of the salt caverns under Seneca Lake? Does it? I know FERC already approved Crestwood's application.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, directly, it doesn't, right? So the ban on fracking only applies to actually drilling and doing horizontal high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and that we won't do in New York. But in the meantime, of course, the gas industry is building out all the infrastructure for fracking, including pipelines and compressor stations and storage depots. So Seneca Lake will become if the gas industry has its way – absent our intervention – a giant gas station. But because the federal government is in charge of much of that project, because pipelines are involved and natural gas is involved, that approval has already happened. We tried mightily through all legal means to redress grievance. We brought good science to bear; we testified; we gave comments; we organized the public to send thousands of comments in opposition; and all of that was simply ignored and swept aside by our Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, which is a rogue agency as far as I can see. It has no congressional oversight; there's no appeal process. So we are left now with a civil disobedience campaign. So we are speaking with our bodies at the gates. We began with a handful of us being arrested on the day that the approval was given to begin construction, a civil disobedience movement was born at the gates of Crestwood.

Learn more about local and national groups opposed to natural gas fracking by visiting

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