New York’s Fracking Ban Affirms Power of Grassroots Activism

January 7, 2015

Before New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking last month, dozens of small towns had already banned the practice in their municipalities. Due to the local bans and existing state restrictions, 63% of the Marcellus Shale was already off limits when the statewide ban was announced, muddling the economic boon forecasted by industry proponents and creating the type of political atmosphere for Gov. Cuomo to act decisively.

2014 Goldman Prize winner Helen Slottje played a major role in working with communities to pass local bans, providing pro-bono legal assistance to towns across New York. Slottje and her team celebrated a major victory when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in their favor that towns could indeed use zoning ordinances to ban fracking.

The statewide ban was based upon findings from a years-long state health study that determined fracking posed “significant public health risks.” Gov. Cuomo highlighted the fact that the decision was not a personal one, but rather one made out of deference to his health and environmental conservation commissioners. He said, “I am not a scientist. I’m not an environmental expert. I’m not a health expert. I’m a lawyer. I’m not a doctor. I’m not an environmentalist. So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”

And the opinion of the experts is that fracking is too risky to go forward. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known,” said acting state health commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker.

Environmental groups and anti-fracking activist hailed the decision and are hopeful that it will put pressure on other governors to take similar measures.

“It’s a real victory for people and democracy and the rights of communities for how they want to live,” said Slottje.