Have read several accounts of how “we” banned fracking in New York, how “you (fractavists)” banned fracking and at least one thinly veiled “How I” banned fracking, plus the usual assortment of why Cuomo banned fracking from the main stream media, some of whom have gotten this about half right. The net result is a kind of Rashomon Effect – different observers see the same scene but report it quite differently, in some cases ignoring some of the other players entirely.
You are entitled to your own perception of what happened, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.
Have written a brief history of the New York ban movement myself, and have been agnostic as to who or what was more effective – since there were indeed a lot players involved and most of them are my friends. There is a rather obvious way to vet the variables and suss out which ones were decisive. The good news is that the one that stands out was the one that was the most disperse – the one that involved the most work from the most people. Even gentle souls like Hillary Acton. Especially gentle souls like Hillary Acton who had the gumption to act.
To do this, look at what happened in New York compared to what happened in California and Maryland – both of which approved fracking at about the same time that it was banned in New York. By looking at the driving variables in each state, we might be able to suss out what made New York the exception. And another example of the Rashomon Effect.
If success has many fathers, let’s do a paternity test on this infant.
1. The science decided. That is the conventional wisdom, but alas it’s not that simple – because the science is fundamentally the same in California and Maryland. None of the key scientific studies were done in New York, Maryland or California, most were done in Pennsylvania (similar hydrologically, topographically and demographically to New York and Maryland) or in Texas, Oklahoma, or Colorado – similar to California. The difference was not the science, the difference was how the same scientific facts were treated politically in each state. That, ipso facto, was a political decision, not a scientific one.
New York could have let its environmental department (DEC) oversee the study – which is what Maryland did. But if it did, the outcome – the conclusion -would have carried the bias of the DEC, which is not an autonomous environmental actor when it comes to fracking, because the lead department within the DEC on fracking is the Mineral Resources Department. Since Mineral Resources is a revolving door to the industry it regulates, had it been in charge, the outcome would, in my opinion, been different.
The science proved decisive, but it didn’t decide. Governor Cuomo decided to let the science be decisive. And in so doing, he put fracking under the microscope, where it had never been politically.
By choosing the Department of Health, the scientific review had a far less biased arbiter than the DEC. Which begs the question – why did Governor Cuomo give the deciding vote to the agency least likely to bless fracking ?
2. The geoscience decided. If you remove the economic arguments in favor of fracking, which are direct functions of the geology, there’s no reason to do it. Jannette Barth took the work that Lou Allstadt, Jerry Acton and Brian Brock did on the geology and translated it into the expected economic impacts. The New York League of Women Voters hired Berman & Pittinger to do their own reserve estimates, and the resultant economic picture was not pretty for fracking in New York. Nothing to frack here folks, move along.
As if on cue, as soon as the ban was announced, the industry, including the original proponents for fracking New York, admitted that New York’s shale gas reserves were inconsequential, tacitly acknowledging the work of Acton, Brock, Allstadt, Barth, Berman and Pittinger. Without the overt admission: “We were just kidding about all that gas in New York.”
But the geology is no better in Maryland, it’s arguably worse, and not much better in California, whose Monterrey Shale underwent a whoppping 95% reserve estimate write down. The only difference in California is that it is a major oil and gas producer, and has been for years. So, politically, banning one from of extraction might make less sense there than in New York, which is a negligible oil and gas producer. Regardless, the iffy geology and the attendant economics were probably not determinant in New York. Another nail in the coffin, but not the coffin.
3. Celebrity Endorsements. Celebrities clearly gave good exposure to the anti-fractavists, but, guess what, California has movie stars too, some of whom the governor has dated and many of whom are against fracking. So celebrity fractavists were helpful, but their impact in New York has probably been overstated – by the frackers.
4. Shadowing the Governor. Local and statewide groups, notably Food & Water Watch followed the Governor to every public appearance. This was a very effective political move: there was no media coverage of the Governor without coverage of fractavists.
5. The town ban movement. This is where New York really stands out from Maryland and California. Zoning applies to oil and gas development in California (as in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, etc.), but few California towns or counties had banned fracking. Zoning applies to oil and gas development in Maryland, but there was not a significant number of municipal frack bans. Not the case in New York. Although Texas towns have routinely address oil and gas drilling in their land use plans, none of them had banned it outright prior to Dryden and Middlefield. New York led the way here – based on an untested legal theory that zoning could be applied to prohibit the activity entirely.
The town ban movement was a plebiscite on fracking. For the first time anywhere people could stand up and say that they did not want their town to be industrialized with shale exploitation. Towns that did not ban – that passed non-binding resolutions in favor of fracking were simply acknowledging the phenomena of this state-wide plebiscite.
Unlike mere polls, town bans were the embodied achievements of grass roots activists, and their proliferation sent a clear political message to Albany.
California and Maryland underwent no such state-wide referendum. The town ban movement proved decisive in New York, since it not only put areas off-limits for fracking, but it became a political gesture par excellence.
6. The political science was decisive. Since this was perforce a political decision (in the sense that it was made by a politician), the conclusive science was the political science. The Governor could have done what the governor did in Maryland, he could have left the decision to a revolving door regulatory agency (who came up with some “tough regulations”); by not doing so, Governor Cuomo set fracking up to fail – since the science was overwhelming against fracking. (Despite the paucity of studies at the outset, the majority were never in favor of fracking.)
By the time he made the decision, the political pendulum was swinging against fracking – the geology was not conducive, the studies were stacking up against fracking and the town ban movement, when measured in terms of votes – not just acreage – was decisively skewing towards a ban. Karen Edelstein mapped this – bans and moratoria as a function of population, shown below.
It is important to note that the majority of these bans and moratoria had passed and been defended in court before the Governor gave the deciding vote on fracking to the Department of Health.
Downstate’s opposition to fracking was even more solid – as evidenced by the proposed exemption from fracking for New York City’s water reservoirs. What’s good for New York City really was good for the Finger Lakes. And the Governor got that message.
Town actions as function of the population over the Utica Shale in New York.
Red circles are bans, lavender of moratoria, yellow of petitions to ban.
In sum, the deciding science in New York, the factor that differentiated it from California and Maryland was the political science. And the swing variable in the political calculus, the action that was unique to New York was the result of the de facto state wide referendum – the town ban movement which spoke the lingua franca of the one science that politicians understand – political science.