It was a movie-worthy scene. In July of last year, a New Paltz-based coalition named Frack Action stood before the New York Legislature in Albany. Its mission? To protest the expansion of gas companies into the Catskills in order to begin horizontal hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), a highly controversial process used to extract natural gas from shale deposits deep below the ground.
Joined by other grass roots organizations, representatives from Frack Action had made the journey up the Thruway from towns all over Orange and Sullivan counties; their numbers were strong and the placards they carried were colorful and clever. The representatives from the gas companies, wearing suits and carrying briefcases, sat in another part of the auditorium. But the activists had been here before and had failed to gain any kind of foothold. So what would be different about today?
Suddenly, from out of the crowd emerged a man holding a clear jar filled with a murky, colored liquid. He looked to be in his early forties, of medium height, handsome in a ruddy and accidental way. At first, he spoke in the apologetic syntax of the Rockwellian farmer standing up in the town hall. “I went to Dimock, Pennsylvania, and I got this out of a family’s well that’s been poisoned by a frack well that’s within 200 yards of their home. Who here, who here in New York, would like to take a sip of that? Who here in New York would like to wake up in the morning and bathe in this? For crying out loud! Have we lost our collective minds?” he demanded. “This is a fighting matter for me and a lot of people.”
Star power: Actor Mark Ruffalo shows his true colors at a fly-fishing event in Roscoe, Sullivan County, last spring. Ruffalo — who lives nearby — has been a vocal opponent to fracking, a process which he and other activists claim causes air and water pollution (among other problems)
Photograph courtesy of www.un-naturalgas.org
It seemed to take members of the legislature the length of a double take before they could place his identity. Wasn’t he Terry, the wayward brother in You Can Count on Me? Isn’t he the sperm donor motorcycle dude in The Kids Are Alright? They were right. But this time actor Mark Ruffalo had not traveled to Albany to promote his latest film. He was there as a citizen of the Catskills, where he has lived with his wife and three children on the banks of the Delaware River for the last decade. It was his first time in front of the legislature; it has not been his last. Although Ruffalo insists he’s “really no different from so many others,” he is putting his star power to use and emerging as a vocal leader in the local anti-fracking movement. The tables are starting to turn. Less than five months after this appearance, then Governor David Patterson issued Executive Order 41, which requires the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to assess the hazards of high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. During that process, expected to take about three years, a de facto fracking moratorium is in place, making New York the first state in the nation to place a formal time-out on the practice.
As recently as three years ago, few in the Hudson Valley had even heard of fracking. But it has quickly become the environmental issue du jour, both in the state and nationwide. In an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, gas companies began drilling underground in parts of the country decades ago. To date, close to a half million active natural gas wells exist in 34 states. Proponents argue that it is a cash cow, supplying thousands of jobs; they also point to the recent nuclear power plant scare in Japan and the rising fuel pump prices as reasons to drill. Opponents say that the many chemicals used in the process are dangerous and quickly pollute both the drinking water and the air. They point out that on the state level, there has not been one piece of legislation passed to regulate high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
Stuck squarely in the middle are the region’s farmers, who are having a difficult time making a living and are being offered gobs of money from the gas companies for the right to drill on their land.
Nearby Pennsylvania is a hot spot for natural gas — and fracking. The state is riddled with about 71,000 natural gas wells. But it wasn’t until about 2003 that the drilling industry discovered a vast amount of gas stored in the rich Marcellus Shale, a 400 million-year-old natural gas field that has its southern-most tip in West Virginia and reaches 29 New York counties, including Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster. About a mile underground in most places, it is the largest continuous shale compound in the U.S., and is thought to have enough natural gas to provide at least 10 years’ worth of fuel for the entire nation. Companies have raced to the depths, drilling 2,359 wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus from 2007 through 2010. Down there, hydraulic fracking is king. Last year’s Gasland, the HBO-produced documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox, highlighted the happenings in the tiny town of Dimock, where fracking has — apparently — wreaked havoc on the locals’ quality of life. A now infamous scene, played repeatedly on YouTube, shows a kitchen faucet bursting into flames. (Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, which is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S., recently told shareholders that studies have not confirmed that fracking causes well-water contamination. Rather, he said, such cases are the result of poor drilling practices 60 to 80 years ago.)
Not on our watch: Anti-fracking activists Jill Weiner and Bruce Ferguson stand in a Sullivan County farm field. Gas companies have offered Pennsylvania farmers an average of $5,000 per acre for drilling rights on their land — a sum many cash-strapped growers find difficult to turn down. Farmhearts, an organization in which Ferguson and Mark Ruffalo are both active, is working to help New York farmers keep their land for agricultural purposes
Photograph by Michael Nelson
Before Ruffalo began filming You Can Count on Me in Delaware County 16 years ago, he was a restless 27-year-old actor living in Los Angeles, on the heels of a stellar New York stage performance of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. He was good-looking, and life in the big cities was as fast as the rise of his career. As filming of the movie progressed, however, he quickly became enamored of the rolling hills and crystal clear streams of the lower Catskills. It reminded him of his childhood spent in Wisconsin and Virginia.
With the $5,000 he had in the bank, Ruffalo purchased a cabin in Sullivan County; several years ago, when he and his wife, actress Sunrise Coigney, had become the parents of three small children, they moved to a 47-acre dairy farm just a quick ride up the hill from Callicoon (population 222 as of 2007). He drives his kids to school. He frequents places like the Café Devine for morning coffee. He knows farmers by their first names. When Sunrise broke her leg a few years ago, his neighbors suddenly appeared at the front door with food.
It was a simple e-mail he received three years ago from Bruce Ferguson, a member of the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, that changed everything for Ruffalo. “I’d read that Bruce was protesting a zoning law to allow fracking in the area,” he says. “Naturally, I wanted to know if it was headed to Delaware Valley, then was it safe?” So he set about educating himself. He read a 2004 online report by the Environmental Protection Agency concluding that there was little chance hydraulic fracking could contaminate drinking water, a study Ruffalo calls “bogus.” He continued flying through the Internet: there was a story about a woman in Wisconsin who was suffering from lesions on her brain, which he believes may have been caused by her living close to a fracking well. He wrote an impassioned letter to State Senator John J. Bonacic, representative for District 42. “It was the first time I’d ever written to a politician in my life,” Ruffalo said.
Then he was asked to take a one-day journey. On a sweltering afternoon in late June of last year, Ruffalo joined New York State-based environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on a road trip to Dimock. There, he inspected contaminated drinking wells. He saw the aftermath of exploding wells and chemical spills. He spoke with townspeople, whose stories of decreased property values and health concerns seemed to support the claim that Cabot Oil and Gas, the company responsible for the drilling, had denied responsibility for the environmental mess, and further, that state regulators were slow to enforce regulations. On the very same day as Ruffalo’s visit, a blowout at another Pennsylvania natural gas well shot a mixture of gas and polluted water 75 feet into the air.
“I swear, the residents we spoke to out there looked at Robert Kennedy, Jr. as Moses leading them to the Promised Land,” Ruffalo says. “These people had no one supporting them. The EPA had no power, and every safeguard to protect them was gone. I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is America. Things like this should not be happening.’ ”
During his three-hour ride back to Callicoon, Ruffalo thought of his children. He thought about the impact that a similar catastrophe would have on his community. He envisioned the gas companies continuing their eastward march over the Delaware River like an encroaching plague. “I just thought, ‘Man, this is real, it’s here now, and it’s coming to my home,’ ” he said. “The only thing that’s different is that I have a voice that happens to reach a little farther than the others who are passionate about this.”
Ruffalo has gone back to Albany five more times to lobby with several anti-fracking groups. He has visited college campuses. He has screened the controversial Gasland, which served as the first alert of the issue for millions of Americans. A week before the Academy Awards, when he should have been campaigning on talk shows for his Oscar-nominated role in The Kids Are Alright, he went to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to close oil and gas industry loopholes.
“He is perfectly willing to become the face of this movement, and he makes himself very available. He is really just like any other neighbor, except that people know who he is,” says Bruce Ferguson.
“He’s superhuman,” adds Clare Donohue, a volunteer for www.un-naturalgas.org. “He’s like, ‘Just let me know what you need me to do, and I’ll do it.’ ”
There is a long wooden table in the Old North Branch Inn in North Branch, where over coffee and danish, owner Victoria Lesser and her fellow representatives from Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy meet frequently throughout the year, plotting e-mail blasts, special events, and ways to raise public awareness.
From this table and many others like it throughout the Valley, small victories are being won. In addition to influencing the decision to place the ban, organizations have enlisted the support of New York politicians, including Congressman Maurice Hinchey and assembly member Aileen Gunther, who represents the Sullivan County constituency. E-mail lists are exploding in numbers. A crowd of 600 turned up for a potluck fund-raiser in Callicoon last fall that was organized by Ruffalo and his wife.
The number of New Yorkers who have been alerted to the fracking controversy “has grown from zero three years ago to more than eight million today,” says Ferguson, largely through the work of grass roots action committees. “Education is the number one priority, because once you know half the facts, you’re horrified enough.
“The gas industry’s goal is to get in the ground before anyone knows what’s going on,” Ferguson adds. “They’ve never had to deal with an educated public before. People I’ve spoken to out west who are now living through gas drilling told us that no one knew anything, but since it’s moved eastward, it’s gained attention.”
One day last year, Victoria Lesser maneuvered her white SUV along the winding roads between North Branch and Roscoe. She points to a 400-acre farm outside of Jeffersonville. It is a century old. “They’re looking to lease their land to the gas companies for drilling,” she says. Within an hour, she has driven by a half dozen other farms; each of them, she says, are contemplating doing the same thing. The payoff is immediate and lucrative; she says farmers in Pennsylvania have received an average of $5,000 an acre from the gas industry for the right to drill on their property, as well as potential profits for what may be found. That’s big money for small farmers, such as those in Sullivan County who are the victims of an upsurge in corporate farming and continue to pay mortgages on under-performing enterprises.
At a Delaware River Basin Commission meeting in 2010, Ruffalo told the farmers in attendance, “I think it’s criminal that the farmers in this country have got to rely on something like this in order to keep their farms.” In response, Ruffalo is spearheading Farmhearts, a new organization aimed at helping farmers stay in the agricultural business and out of the gas business. Recently, the group gave $12,000 to Sonia Janiszewski Persichilli, to support her work in establishing programs for farmers in the Catskill region. “As we saw farmers forced to sign lease contracts, we felt we would like to help them with better opportunities to sell their products, to put the focus on locally grown food,” said Ferguson, a Farmhearts board member.
After more than a year spent on the front lines of the fracking issue, Ruffalo has returned to his day job. Currently, he’s filming The Avengers with Robert Downey, Jr. Because of his film obligations, he was unable to join the hundreds of New Yorkers who descended on Albany last April to meet with more than 180 lawmakers, urging them to consider the DEC’s environmental review, which includes revised guidelines to determine the future of fracking in the state. During their visit, they called for the passage of a state bill that would govern industrial gas drilling under home-rule zoning rules in addition to statewide regulations, as well as legislation that would close the hazardous waste loophole in current state law and require better transport and treatment of hazardous wastes produced by oil or gas facilities.
On a Saturday in April at the Mountain View Manor in Glen Spey, Ruffalo attended a screening of Frack! The Movie, a new documentary by David Morris. He was joined by 400 others, many of whom had brought Tupperware bowls of food for a potluck supper. In between bites of lentil salad, Ruffalo was asked about what he has learned about a movement that is now reaching millions. “I see hope in seemingly disparate places of our community from people who share the same space, townspeople and city people. This is a leaderless revolution.
“I’m really no different than so many others, who want to get on with the rest of their lives,” he added. “I understand that for many, they don’t want to cause waves, and feel that the law will ultimately take care of them. But what I’ve learned in being involved in this fight is that there are many like me who are declaring who they are and fighting for what’s important, and doing it in a demonstrative way.”
The film ended. Ruffalo joined Ferguson and others at the front of the room for questions. From the far corner a woman said, “I have wells all around me. Let me tell you, the gas companies are coming. I know we have a moratorium, but what about after it’s lifted?”
Ruffalo stepped forward. At first, his voice was unsure, like it was running on ice. He took a breath, paused, and began again. “If you’ve given up hope, it’s because you’re not doing enough,” he told the woman. “Each step you take gives you something. We can all choose to walk out of here tonight and give up, or we can all choose to go home and pound our keyboards.”
He continued to speak, the volume of his speech rising with each sentence. “We stopped this! We put a moratorium on this! They told us for three years, ‘You can’t win,’ and then we went to Albany and then they said to us, ‘My God, there are a hundred of you here. This must be serious!’ ”
The overflow audience that had been respectful all evening — muted, one might say — surrendered their politeness. Ruffalo had tossed fuel on the bottled-up fury they’d been keeping inside for so long. The thunderous noise they made continued as Ruffalo — their good neighbor — retreated back into the anonymous thicket of the crowd.
Map design by Arlene So
Geologists have long known of the natural gas held in the tar-black Marcellus Shale formation. Named after a distinctive outcropping near Marcellus, New York, the formation is deep — a mile down in some places — and the shale isn’t very permeable so natural gas doesn’t easily flow through it. For those reasons, drilling companies largely ignored it until 2004, when Fort Worth-based Range Resources sank a well into the Marcellus in southwest Pennsylvania. The company discovered a surprising amount of natural gas and began experimenting with new methods of extraction.
It was then that high-pressure, horizontal hydraulic fracturing was born. Ranging from 200 to 890 feet, the Marcellus is at its thickest in its eastern section — which is near New York City and heavily populated parts of New Jersey. The formation is estimated to hold between 168 and 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. By comparison, New York State burns about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year.