Australian Progress Presentation

Slide 1 Remarks: I work at Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, as our Acting Director of campaigns. For the past six years, our campaign has focused on keeping fracking out of New York state. As some as you may have heard, we succeeded. In December, our Governor announced he would ban the practice. This was a huge victory, an all-hands on deck effort with activists bird-dogging our Governor at every single appearance he made, hundreds of thousands of people calling, emailing, sending letters, thousands gathering at regular intervals for rallies, protests and demonstrations. The piece Earthjustice was most closely involved with — and what I’m going to focus on today — was defending what would go on to become the building blocks of the statewide ban, and that’s the dozens of local fracking bans that local communities concerned about fracking had started passing beginning in 2011.

Slide 2 Remarks: Dryden, a small rural town in upstate New York was one of the first to pass a ban. Six weeks later, they were sued by a billionaire-owned oil and gas company that had paid landowners in the town to lease their land for gas development and insisted that the town was not allowed to keep the company out. Earthjustice attorneys were approached by town leaders to represent them in the court case and agreed. It was the attorney’s job to win the court case. It was my job to make sure that news of a big legal battle didn’t intimidate more towns from passing bans and instead to create a positive narrative and a movement around the local ban strategy. Backing up a little bit to explain this local ban strategy: it really was a genuine homegrown strategy and it was born out of necessity. Starting in 2007, people in Dryden started getting knocks on the door from what we call ‘landmen.’ These door-to-door salesman types were offering landowners thousands of dollars for the right to drill for gas. In the United States — different from Australia — the rights to develop oil and gas wells is privately held. And in New York, most property owners also own those drilling rights. There was lots of excitement about “shale-ionaires” and the oil and gas industry was presented as a salvation for Upstate New York’s struggling farming industry. Combine that with the fact that most people had absolutely no idea what fracking was and you had people, even people who would consider themselves environmentalists, signing leases with the oil and gas industry.

Slide 3 Remarks: But before fracking got started in New York State, alarming things started happening next door in Pennsylvania, where the fracking boom was already taking off. Here’s a map where we’ve unofficially been tallying fracking industry incidents — or ‘fraccidents’ as we call them. You can’t even see the state of Pennsylvania, it’s absolutely covered. The people in Dryden, who’d been told that the lease they signed ‘was no big deal, everyone was doing it,’ started panicking.

Slide 4 Remarks: One fateful spring day, a former corporate lawyer named Helen Slottje read about a community meeting that was happening on the issue and decided to attend. By the time she left, she’d been drafted into service. Her charge: try to figure out a way to stop this thing. So she holed up in a law library and started researching. At this point, environmental groups had started to get engaged, but because the law said the state had the sole power to regulate the oil and gas industry, the only workable solution these groups had been able to see was to push for strong state-wide regulations. But Helen had a theory: most small towns in New York had zoning laws. Maybe this type of industrial development could be treated as a local zoning issue, meaning local officials could decide that land in town could not be used for oil and gas development. It wasn’t regulating the industry, for example, saying how much and what types of chemicals they could use. Helen brought this idea back to the community group and they pounced. But before they could get local elected officials to pass these new zoning laws, they had to get organized.  Asking nicely isn’t enough, no matter how small your target is. So people got organized, found out the margin of victory in the last election, set a goal for petition signatures, and went door-to-door.

Slide 5 Remarks: The townspeople in Dryden and lots of other towns did the work and got their bans passed. And once they passed a ban, they’d turn around and help another town do it. Bit by bit, they were building their power. Of course the oil and gas industry was intimidated by what this meant. So they lashed out with a lawsuit. We don’t know for certain why Dryden got sued and others didn’t, but some speculate it’s because of the political makeup of the town. Many of the early towns who had passed fracking bans were relatively politically progressive. Dryden was the first town with a sizable Republican population to take action. It could be that the industry thought they could divide the town, divide the college professors on the east side of town against the farmers on the west. But the opposite happened. In an election following the lawsuit, all of the pro-ban candidates won in a landslide, even in the Republican part of town. It was no longer an environmental issue, it was a rights issue. The good news was, we thought our chances in court were decent, so the court case also provided an opportunity to tell a success story of a town that was fighting back and winning.

Slide 6 Remarks: I worked closely with the community, getting their permission to share their story with the broader world. We wanted to inspire people and show them that something could be done, that fighting fracking wasn’t a lost cause, and we wanted to educate people about the nuts and bolts of carrying out such a strategy. We put together a 10 minute video, narrated by the actor Mark Ruffalo, to help spread the word.

Slide 7: Play video clip

Slide 8 Remarks: And then we shouted it from the mountaintop, turning this little town into big news, getting on national television and front page coverage in the Washington Post. Helen Slottje, the architect of the fracking ban strategy went on to win the Goldman Prize, sometimes referred to as the ‘green’ Nobel prize. When she won, her strategy and the community at the heart of it went on to earn international attention. Between 2011 and 2014, more than 170 communities in New York passed bans or moratoriums on fracking. And in June, when we won the court case in New York’s highest court, it meant the rights of all of those municipalities had been upheld.

Slide 9 Remarks: A few months later, when the Governor announced the statewide fracking ban, his environmental commissioner showed a map of all 170 of those communities and referred to the court victory as a tipping point, which really was vindication that our litigation and our campaign had reached the right ears. What’s exciting is this local ban model can be exported. Communities in Colorado, Texas, and California have also passed bans. Now, just like in Australia, the rights of local municipalities varies from state to state. One final thought — something I’m sure all of you have noticed — the anti-fracking movement is an incredibly motivated, energized base of people that has been an infusion of power into the environmental movement worldwide. And we’re seeing an evolution where frack-tivists, at first animated by local pollution concerns, are taking notice of the entire energy system and are now turning their attention toward fighting for clean energy policies. Which is a really exciting place for us to start heading. [END OF PRESENTATION]