Was Andrew Cuomo's NY Fracking "Sacrifice Zone" Plan Hatched by NRDC?

Has New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just made the southern tier of the state a “sacrifice zone,” as alleged by award-winning author and “fracktivist,” Sandra Steingraber? Was it a plot hatched by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)?

The signs pointing to both possibilities are troublesome, to say the least.

The New York Times reported yesterday, via an unidentified insider at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), that Cuomo intends to “limit [shale gas] drilling to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale rock formation, at least for the next several years, in an effort to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.”

The Times article describes Cuomo's apparent plan:  

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration is pursuing a plan to limit the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing to portions of several struggling New York counties along the border with Pennsylvania, and to permit it only in communities that express support for the technology.

These counties, it turns out, are not only “struggling,” as The Times describes them, but in destitute levels of poverty. Two of the counties up for grabs for fracking include Steuben and Chemung, which, according to New York Department of Labor statistics, have unemployment rates hovering around 10 percent, among the highest in the state.

Support for dangerous industrial development is certainly much easier to garner during times of economic desperation. That much has been made clear throughout history in the United States, particularly in the arena of mountaintop removal for coal extraction in Appalachia. In other words, it's far easier to sell a rotten bill of goods (or in this case, contaminated water and air) to those mired in poverty. Is New York setting up to repeat this tragic cycle?

Plan Hatched by the NRDC?

Tom Wilber, author of the recently published book Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale and author of the blog Shale Gas Review, picked up on the fact that a “sacrifice zone”-type plan was originally hatched by the NRDC. He explained that this plan was described by the NRDC as one that could limit fracking in New York state to “geographically limited areas”:

As part of that review, the NRDC memo asked regulators to consider a three-year demonstration project in several “geographically limited areas.” Depending on the outcome, the state could then decide whether to “advance further a broader HVHF (High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing) program.” The memo was signed by NRDC senior attorneys Eric Goldstein and Kate Sinding, and consultant Craig Michaels.

[The Times] story did not specifically link Cuomo’s approach to the NRDC proposal, although Cuomo’s plan squares with the NRDC recommendations, and activists are disappointed with the NRDC for putting it on the table to begin with. Robert Kennedy Jr. serves as a senior attorney for the NRDC and sits on a panel that advices [sic] the DEC on it’s [sic] approach to shale gas.

NRDC has responded on Wilber's blog, claiming that its proposal wasn't intended as a “sacrifice zone”-type plan. NRDC attorney Kate Sinding told Wilber

We were clear that we were neither specifically endorsing any of these alternatives nor were we presupposing that any level of development should be approved – simply that the state cannot fully evaluate fracking here without an in-depth analysis of any and all scenarios that could take place here.” Sinding added: “We regret that these comments have created concern and confusion. We stand with our partners across New York State in calling for a continued moratorium on new fracking until the environmental and health risks are fully and properly considered.”
[Read NRDC's full statement at Wilber's blog in the comments section.]

It's worth noting, however, that NRDC's memo to NYDEC included the following language prior to the controversial “geographically limited areas” section [see pg 6 of the PDF]

“In the remainder of this section, we set forth five reasonable alternatives that can and should be fully evaluated as part of the state's SEQRA analysis.”  [emphasis added]

And some activists aren't buying NRDC's stance. Sandra Steingraber, the outspoken author of the book Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis [see DeSmog's interview with Steingraber about the book] and founder of the activist organization New Yorkers Against Fracking, stated of the NRDC-like Cuomo plan,

Instead of defending these communities, which is NRDC's self-appointed charge, the organization provided to the DEC in great detail a plan that sounds a lot like the very plan that is today being floated by the Cuomo administration: partitioning the state into frack and no frack zones in a way that will, if implemented, place the Southern Tier on the far side of the shale gas curtain. 

Her organization has launched a petition in response to the “sacrifice zone” partition plan and rallies around the state are planned as well. 

The prospect of fracking in New York has many other groups worried about the impacts that would likely come with unconventional energy development.

“Within five years, you’ll start to see these chemicals show up in the water system,” said Ramsay Adams, Executive Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.

Time will tell how the Cuomo administration actually proceeds, but the early indications are painting a dark picture of what may be in store for New York's water and health.

Image creditShutterstock | Cindi Wilson


I want to be clear – NRDC has not, and does not, in any way endorse demo projects. To suggest otherwise is misleading and inaccurate.

As I told Tom Wilber, NRDC continues to fully support the ongoing moratorium on fracking in New York as the state evaluates any and all potential scenarios and associated risks that could emerge here. And, as we have long stated, we do not believe fracking should be permitted unless and until the state is able to show New Yorkers’ water, health and environment would be fully protected.

While the state continues its environmental review process of proposed fracking, we believe there are still too many unanswered questions for the state to consider moving forward now – in limited places or otherwise.

Last week, I posted a statement from NRDC that elaborates on this here: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ksinding/no_limited_fracking_in_ny_befo.html

NRDC’s focus remains standing up to the big oil and gas companies that have been running roughshod across communities nationwide for too long. We will continue fighting alongside our colleagues in other environmental organizations to ensure this is not allowed to happen in New York.