Using a clause in the state constitution that gives municipalities the right to make local land use decisions, 2014 Goldman Prize winner Helen Slottje provided pro-bono legal assistance, helping towns across New York defend themselves from oil and gas companies by passing local bans on fracking. In the Q&A below, Slottje tells us how she did it.
How did your experience as a lawyer translate to your environmental work?
In November 2009, David and I formed the Community Environmental Defense Council and began researching to find a way that individual towns could be empowered to fight fracking. We began by considering what limits a town can place on this extreme industrial use. Industry had told everyone that there was nothing that towns could do besides pass a road use ordinance and wait to collect their riches. But as we analyzed the law, we concluded that a town could use land use laws to prohibit high impact industrial uses like fracking, even if towns were prohibited from regulating drilling operations. In the late summer of 2010, a petition for a local law banning fracking based on our zoning logic began circulating in the town of Ulysses. There was such a widespread desire throughout the town to fight fracking that the townspeople were proactively calling town hall asking to sign the petition. By mid-2011, Dryden, Ulysses and Ithaca all passed laws to prohibit fracking based on our zoning model.
How do you respond to claims that fracking improves the economy and solves the country’s energy crisis?
John Rockefeller used to advise his people, “Tell only as much of the truth as you have to, and in a way that does not relay the truth of what is happening.” Industry’s playbook hasn’t changed much since then. Fundamentally, industry’s economic and energy security claims are misleading at best. Fracking may reward investment bankers and Wall Street but it does not create real wealth. We all pay for fracking by letting industry foul our clean air, our clean water, and our food-producing soils in the name of profit mongering. Boom and bust towns are as old as the industry itself. Peace and quiet disappear in the wake of the accompanying truck traffic, prostitution, drugs and crime. Over the long term, resource extraction leads to poverty. It’s that simple. We only need to look to Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see that economies based on resource extraction do not benefit the local communities — not in the short term and certainly not in the long term. And on the national scale, draining our lands and shipping the product overseas to China doesn’t provide security. Rather, it makes American manufacturing and our energy prices entirely dependent upon the more unpredictable and higher priced international markets. The promises fracking makes are hype and will leave us and our children with a tremendous carbon debt. Locally owned small-scale renewable energy is a much better choice both for our economy and for energy security.
What do you think local community members and governments can do to ensure that the current bans based on zoning laws will stand?
Local laws are enacted by local government, so it’s a matter of maintaining community involvement. What people, especially here in New York, need to do is to get involved in local elections and land use decisions. Historically, large land owners and development interests have the most to gain in land use decisions, which is why town boards are dominated by pro-growth and pro-development voices. There is much less of an incentive for an everyday member of the population to run for office given that many people have jobs, families and other obligations. Yet many of the activists we work with are surprised at how much they enjoy getting to know their neighbors and how rewarding getting involved has been for them. When participation in local democracy is revitalized and people start talking about what they want the future to look like, it becomes clear that the decision to place a well pad next to a school, a hospital, or a daycare center should be made by the people who live in the community and not by far off unaccountable multinational corporations. And then the importance of getting involved, and staying involved, is very clear. Government depends upon consent of the governed, and once people understand that they should have the right to decide whether they want fracking in their community, it’s going to be hard for industry to turn that around.