Environmentalists Are Doing Impressive Fracking PR Work in New York

Confusion around Andrew Cuomo's policies show environmentalists do good viral media

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You've probably heard about fracking, by now. It's a short-hand term for hydraulic fracturing, a method for extracting natural gas by drilling into shale and pumping a mix of water and chemicals into the ground, creating pressure that pushes out natural gas deposits. Depending on who you talk to, the method is either a solution to our clean energy needs or the worst thing you could ever do to the Earth.

The New York Times reported Thursday that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was seeking to lift the state's ban on fracking, a revelation that environmentalists quickly ground into hyperbolic headlines. But day-after analysis shows that initial reports might have jumped the gun a little bit by inviting a sweeping assumption that Cuomo caved to the energy goons and Manhattanites would soon be able to light their water on fire. The fact that the assumption traveled as far as Africa and prompted open letters to the governor, however, shows just how effective anti-fracking environmentalists have been at marketing.

Before launching into the anti-fracking marketing idea, let's just sum up what's happening in New York. The Times report cites a statement containing preliminary recommendations for how New York would hypothetically regulate fracking based on a revised report from the Department of Environmental Conservation. In the past, Cuomo has pledged not to allow fracking in New York if he doesn't think it's safe, and in line with environmental groups' call for deeper investigation into the practice, is waiting to make a final decisions until the DEC's report has been properly vetted. The latest draft of the report, which has been in the making for over three years, is actually stricter than previous versions. Andrew Revkin at The Times's environmental blog Dot Earth sums it up:

As outlined, the plan, posted on the department Web site, would end such drilling within the upstate watersheds for New York City and Syracuse, on state-owned land and around certain aquifers, but would allow drilling on private land “with rigorous and effective protections.” […]

The new plan is more restrictive than the 2009 environmental report on oil and gas drilling, which was written before fracking became a prime target of local environmental groups. But the plan does not result in a permanent statewide ban, which was the goal of the most strident anti-gas campaigners.

In a text statement, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the environmental agency, said, "This report strikes the right balance between protecting our environment, watersheds, and drinking water and promoting economic development."

I think he’s right.

Those "most strident anti-gas campaigners" indeed were not happy with the compromise, but they couched their continued criticism of the policy well within a we're-got-our-eye-on-you-Cuomo narrative. Tom Zeller at the Huffington Post collected a couple of statements from environmentalists. From Claire Sandberg, executive director of the New York-based Frack Action group:

Governor Cuomo has pledged not to allow this practice until it has been proven safe, and we're confident that he'll uphold his promise. Given all we know about the inherent dangers of fracking--compounded by the new revelations that this industry is in fact just a giant Ponzi scheme that may well bankrupt the state--we expect that Governor Cuomo will not move forward under current circumstances.

Ok, "giant Ponzi scheme" is an attention-grabber in this day and age. So is a phrase like "dumping radioactive wastewater into rivers." Said Environmental Working Group senior council Dusty Horwitt:

New York is rushing into uncharted and dangerous territory. With drilling companies dumping radioactive wastewater into rivers just across the border in Pennsylvania while flagrantly violating federal law by injecting diesel fuel underground without permits, New Yorkers cannot be assured that drilling can be conducted safely. We must have more guarantees that the industry and regulators can operate responsibly before opening the doors to drilling.

Based on the number of years so far invested in the fracking report, "rushing" doesn't quite seem like the right word. However, the anti-fracking movement has mobilized impressively over the course of the past year. A 2010 documentary called Gasland condensed the other side of the natural gas business, long sold to Americans as a  clean alternative, and the film won the Jury Prize at Sundance. In the same year, ProPublica launched a massive investigation into natural gas drilling, so far producing 115 investigative pieces into the practice and at least one music video:

The accessible messaging seems incredibly effective. Let's not forget the YouTube videos like this one, posted by the Gothamist's coverage of Thursday's DEC report and Cuomo's reported lift on the fracking ban. It shows the very meme-worthy practice of lighting your tap water on fire, a constant in areas where fracking affects the groundwater:

It's kind great viral journalism when you think about it: How could people not be horrified and upset that the government might actually be condoning this kind of thing? Because of the exposure given to the fracking issues, Cuomo will have little choice but to respond to criticism. In fact, the latest draft of the DEC report is already a response, a much more in depth look at the issue after the first version released in 2009 was deemed inadequate by environmentalists. It's also important, however, to keep reminding ourselves that some issues are much more complicated that what a headline can provide. Did we mention that that DEC report, the one condensed into nine words by The New York Times, is over 800-pages long?

UPDATE: ProPublica alerted us to the fact that they've actually been on the natural gas drilling beat since 2008. While it would be easy to align their investigative reporting with anti-fracking activism, their lead reporter on natural gas drilling, Abrahm Lustgarten, has discussed how the complexity begs for a broader understanding of the issue. "If you get me in private conversation, my personal belief is gas is an important bridge fuel," said Lustgarten in a ProPublica podcast interview. "My personal motivation for doing these stories, particularly the last one on emissions, is to make sure that people are adequately informed. I think gas should be and will need to be a bridge fuel towards a cleaner future."

Ethan Hawke, Zoë Saldana and Mark Ruffalo fall more on the activism side of things. Along with a number of other New York-based actors, they released this video in June:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.