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Big Oil vs. Small Towns: New York Fractivists Take a Stand

Helen Slottje 

Goldman Environmental Prize winner Helen Slottje is a former corporate lawyer who is single-handedly shutting down fracking in the state of New York.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is rising quickly as an alternative to rapidly depleting conventional sources of fuel, but the practice of extracting shale gas from sedimentary rocks is steeped in controversy. Opponents warn that it is destructive to the environment, and although some countries have banned fracking in response to these concerns, the practice is becoming increasingly common in the United States and several other nations. For environmentalists who oppose fracking, the fight against state governments and big oil corporations can be a daunting battle.

Helen Slottje, however, is more than willing to face the challenge. She and her husband, David Slottje, have been fighting fracking in New York City since 2009, when they worked on a case against an industry project in Chemung County. In 2010, they were able to successfully ban fracking in Ulysses, a small town in Tompkins County, and in 2011, Dryden followed suit. Their success is attributed to a loophole they discovered regarding the regulation of oil drilling in individual towns. Although the Environmental Conservation Law maintains that state law comes before local regulations regarding oil and gas drilling, the law is not clear on the definition of regulations. Rather than trying to regulate drilling, the Slottjes are working pro bono in New York towns to prohibit altogether any “high-impact industrial uses of land” such as fracking.

Helen Slottje is one of six recipients of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists in each of the six continental regions. As the United States winner, Slottje will receive international visibility and recognition for her persistence and success, as well as a grant of $150,000 to pursue her vision of a world without fracking.

Utne Reader spoke with Slottje about her efforts and the power of community activism. Below is a condensed transcript of our interview.

Utne Reader: How did you and your husband discover the loophole that allows towns to ban fracking?

Helen Slottje: Early on, we joined a task force that was working at figuring out what could be done. Everyone said, “There’s going to be a train wreck and you should prepare for it, but you can’t stop it.” We started looking at the preemption statute, which says you can’t “regulate the industry.” Well, what does that mean? What is “regulating the industry”? We believed that a zoning prohibition was not a regulation of the industry. It was a regulation of land use that affected and prohibited gas drilling, but you weren’t regulating the operation or processes of the industry. That was the idea that we had. It had been so soundly dismissed by everyone from industry to people at big environmental law groups that we wanted to make sure we were right and we weren’t somehow missing anything.  We spent a bit of time doing a lot of research.

UR: How many bans and moratoria have been upheld so far?

HS: There are around 180 towns that have done something. There are 75-80 permanent bans. The other 100-120 towns have passed a moratorium or some sort of temporary measure to buy time to deal with passing a final law.

UR: How much time does it take to go through the zoning laws and pass new laws for each community?

HS: It takes less time now than it used to. Our original work was all with full-blown zoning. As that grew, people wanted to do something more quickly, so we started doing more moratoria, which are basically temporary laws you can pass without going too far into the zoning code or the comprehensive plan. There’s the actual legal drafting, which is a few hours for a moratorium and could be thirty to forty hours for a zoning code, depending on the complexity.

What really takes time is going to town board meetings. This isn’t something you just do over the phone. We only go to places where we’re requested. We have enough to do; we don’t need to go anywhere that doesn’t want us. [laughs] Typically, the citizens want us to come. They’ve gone out and done their petitioning. They’ve shown the board that there’s interest in the town. Then we go out and give an educational presentation. That would take a whole night or three quarters of a day— learning about the town, preparing for the presentation, traveling to the town, giving the presentation, answering questions afterward, and coming home.

We would give that presentation to the planning board, and then they would ask for a public information presentation for the town. So, we would often go out to the town two or three times before they would decide whether they wanted to do something. Then they would have a town resolution meeting to ask us to prepare either a moratorium or a zoning amendment. If it was a zoning amendment, we would go out and meet with the townspeople to work on it, whereas with a moratorium, you could just draft it up. You have to pass the local law, so you have to have a public hearing. You go out for the public hearing, then you might have another public information session separate from the hearing, and then there would be another meeting where the board would vote to pass the law.

The traveling and the time involved going back and forth—and there wasn’t anywhere in the state we wouldn’t go—took a tremendous amount of time.

UR: You had to be completely dedicated to the cause.

HS: This is all we do. There was no yard work. There was no gardening. There hasn’t been any house-cleaning in a long time. All of that has been completely neglected. I’m now keeping slightly more normal hours, but for a solid four years, we were up at seven or eight in the morning and would often work until two. There were plenty of days on end where we were pulling all-nighters, and I would repeat to myself, “I am too old for this; I am too old for this.” [laughs] But it seemed so important to us that we did it anyway. Now it’s a little more reasonable, but it is a lot of work.

UR: How has your background as a former corporate lawyer helped you?

HS: You don't stay in business as a young lawyer at a firm by telling clients no. The lawyer's job is to get the deal done. If you don't get the deal done, the client's not going to come back. They want a lawyer who's going to get the deal done, and that's how we approached our work.

That's very different from the typical progressive environmentalist in general. Environmental lawyers tend to view the world as a nice place, where you should talk to people, find out what they want, and build up your political capital. They have funders to deal with, who are oftentimes corporations, and they really don't want to rock the boat or take a fight they can't win. We didn't have any of that baggage. We didn't have any funders. We didn't have to worry about alienating them. We said, "Maybe we go down in flames, but we're going to go out hard. We're going to be aggressive, and we're not going to take no for an answer. Maybe we can't do that, maybe we can't do this. Let's find out what we can do."

I think everything would be different if we had started out as environmental lawyers with comfortable jobs, where we thought, "If we just had better regulations, it would all be wonderful. I want to be in the hands of power, sipping wine in Aspen with the oil companies and talking about what they might do differently." Those types of environmental lawyers want a seat at the table. We don't want a seat at the table. We want to upend the table and call the party over, and that is not typical for activists in general.

There are lots of people on the activist side who really don't want to upset anybody. They have this very nice world view where everybody is just trying to get along. No! If they want to rip your eyes out, asking them why they want to rip your eyes out while they're ripping your eyes out is not a good answer. You need to punch the guy in the head! [laughs]

So, we have a different mindset. When people told us, at the very biggest environmental law firms, "No, you can't do that; you can't win that," we said, "We don't care that you think we can't do it. There has got to be a way to do this. It can't possibly be that there's nothing we can do. That's just too fatalistic."

That was really how our background helped, more so than any particular law that we knew about. It was this mentality that a good lawyer will basically get anything done. Lawyers are profoundly arrogant in that way and tend to believe that they can do anything. [laughs] You think, "There's a job to do here, and there has to be a way to do it." That was what our corporate experience gave us. If we had done the environmental movement first, we probably would have had a different take.

UR: Would you say you had to learn the role of activist as you went along?

HS: As lawyers, we never saw ourselves as activists. Even now, it's a line between being an advocate and being an activist. It can be an interesting line to navigate, but we had to learn a lot about it. In the very beginning, I don’t even know that I knew the word "fracking" versus "natural gas development," but we had a background idea that something was going on and it was important. One day, in May of 2009, there was a meeting in a nearby community and I decided I needed to learn about fracking. Seeing the pictures and envisioning large-scale industrial destruction coming through upstate New York seemed like a terrible tragedy.

Not being steeped in a history of environmentalism and environmental lawyers, I literally went back and bought books about how environmental movements have been successful in the past, what sort of local actions have worked, what made those groups work. We're accustomed to a more visible hierarchy; you tell somebody to do something and they just do it. With the language and culture of activism, with volunteers, you don't get to tell them, "Go do this." You have to ask them, and it's a very different way of getting things done in this very cooperative, egalitarian way. It was a real experience for us. I didn't have anything like that before to compare it to.

UR: Did you find any methods of activism more effective than others?

HS: When you come down to it, in most towns, there are two or three people who are the real core in any small group. There is a larger group of ten to fifteen people who will work on a dedicated basis, but they're not those two or three people who really drive the movement. At first, you're asking, "Why are there only two or three people in this town?" Then you realize, "All right, there are always only two or three people," and you can still get things done. You need these looser, broader connections with the larger groups, but what really makes the change on any of these issues whether it's fracking or something else is a very small group of people who truly drive the train. That makes it much more doable, in a way. When people from a town call us up and say, "I'm disappointed, there are only three of us," we can say, “That’s okay! Three people, that’s good! Three people is better than two people—and two people got it done in that town!”

It’s an easy way to get into activism at a very basic level—going to town board meetings, talking to your neighbors, participating in very reasonable actions that resonate and have the potential to have a truly significant impact. For us, and for the people we work with, that has felt really good compared to the idea that there’s a train wreck coming, and there’s nothing you can do.  People are able to say, “There are a few things I can do. Number one, I can just say no and tell you that you can’t come to my town.” [laughs]

The other side says that we’re always against things. Fine, we’ll be for something. We’ll go out and be for renewable energy and decentralized energy. We’ll be for getting to a time of energy security and moving toward a more resilient, robust, local system that’s not as dependent on larger world activities.

UR: How important is community involvement in this movement?

HS: We have the idea and a template for how to do this, but it is completely dependent upon the people in the community, the people with the equivalent of pitchforks and torches demanding that their town take action and protect them. It was really only successful because of them. Without that level of going out, talking to neighbors, getting people to go to meetings, and really getting involved in democracy, this wouldn't happen. These people are a part of this movement that is reflective of so many other things, like localism and sustainable agriculture and taking back control. All these things tie together various people. We've worked with winery owners and bed-and-breakfast people and hotel people. They all see this as a very serious issue and are working together.

In Ulysses, it was volunteers from the town who were behind it all. It was really encouraging that there was so much support. People had spent a fair amount of time really preparing and developing fact sheets and answers to questions, and they really enjoyed talking to their neighbors. They were asking people to commit to go to town board meetings, and all of a sudden people were going. They were really getting involved in the community and with their neighbors and feeling like they were making a difference, like there was something that they could do. It was really very empowering for everyone involved— for us to see that we could make this difference and help people, and for the various groups we worked with who were having fun going to town board meetings, as strange as that sounds.

There was a whole community of people working on this, connected through email lists and other more regional educational events. There really was this larger community of activists. Sometimes there were people who had never been involved in anything. I’ve never been an activist before! It just sort of had a life of its own. We didn’t set out planning to be involved for this long— on any cause, let alone gas drilling! It’s like the Energizer bunny. It just keeps going.

UR: It must be nice to have a network of people to rely on.

HS: We've met so many wonderful people across the state. When you go to their town board meetings and read their zoning codes and comprehensive plans, you really get a sense of their town. So many of the people we work with all know each other, too, and that's what the really neat thing is. There are attorneys that we can call for help, there are people in communities who can help when we need something. When another community needs advice, you can say, "I know somebody in this town two over from you, and they have the answer to that." It's a very friendly, very supportive, and very engaging community and movement. It's very empowering for everybody involved.

UR: You've faced a lot of criticism over the years. Who are your biggest opponents?

HS: The biggest opposition has been from the industry front this group Energy in Depth, which is a front for the American Petroleum Institute, and particularly this guy named Tom Shepstone, the campaign director of the Marcellus Division of Energy in Depth. They would go to meetings and film us at every opportunity. At one point, somebody even chased David into the restroom with a camera, trying to keep talking to him. [laughs] He was like, "Please, would you just leave me alone for five minutes?" Even today, they wrote a negative article about us. They remain the most negative and personal of the attacks.

The second biggest opposition would be lawyers for industry. The day before the Dryden decision came out, one lawyer was at a town board meeting talking about how there was no way the court was going to come out for the town, that we were wrong about everything, that we couldn't be trusted. The next day, the first court case came down and the town won. Needless to say, he did not send us an apology.

UR: It must have felt incredibly satisfying to win.

HS: It did. Oh, it did! [laughs] The drillers were basically telling town board members, “We’re not just going to sue the town. We are going to sue you personally. You’re going to be found liable. They are going to take everything you own away from you if you vote for this law.” People were worried about that, so we went out and gave these educational presentations. Now we have people saying, “I resent you coming in here and saying that to me. We’re going to pass this law. Go ahead and sue us. That took some backbone to say.

Then they sue and they say, “We’re going to win these lawsuits. You’re going to get thrown out on your rear.” OK, well, we won the two lawsuits. Clearly the state saw local charges. We got this to the appellate court, and they made the right decision. They unanimously upheld us. Anyone who is generally familiar with the law understands the issues here. Even industry lawyers will probably tell you that they think they're going to lose. People do not think the industry is going to win on this. That has been very nice given how personal the attacks were on the "stupidity" of this idea. Hundreds of towns don't think it's stupid. The courts never thought it was stupid. It looks like the only ones who wanted to believe that towns couldn't do this were the industry people, and their arrogance did not pay off for once.

Persistence and fighting for what you believe in is what pays off. An attack we hear often is, “This is just NIMBYism.” Well, what are you going to fight for besides the place you care about? Of course you’re going to fight for the places and things that you love! Wanting to protect your backyard is entirely reasonable. Until that comes to your backyard, until you see the face of something, you may not realize how important this is.

There’s no right to pollute your neighbor’s backyard. There’s all this talk about freedom and individualism, and “Don’t regulate me!” If they can get that gas off their property without using a public road, without using eminent domain, without putting a pipeline through their neighbor’s backyard, without dumping waste, without polluting the air— well, fine, do it. But they can’t. In fact, they need the community to acquiesce them this, because they can’t just do it on their own.

UR: Have you had a moment where you realized you were truly making progress?

HS: The two lower court victories and the appellate court victories were incredibly sweet, although we couldn’t envision losing. [laughs] It wasn’t as if were thinking, “Oh my god, we dodged a bullet!” We were thinking, “Well, of course we were going to win.” But that was immensely satisfying. And we worked with FracTracker and Karen Edelstein in the very beginning. In addition to being NIMBYs, there was this extremist, very vocal minority on the fringes of environmentalism. We thought that part of what we could show with these town bans is that this isn’t the lunatic fringe. This isn’t the peripheral few, very vocal people. We have a map, and we can show town by town what this looks like and that it is growing from east to west and north to south. It’s not done, but tremendous progress has been made. I think I’m happiest when I look at that map.

UR: Do you have a specific goal in mind for your work?

HS: We would like to see that there is never any fracking in New York. And I would really like to see this move to different states—and it has been moving, across the country. It would just be terrific to really recognize fracking for the ridiculous proposition that it is. Is this really the 21st century, and this is what we’re doing? This is a good idea? Are you kidding me? If we live long enough to come out of this consumerism, to pay attention, and to realize that, no, this is the stupidest idea we’ve ever had— that would be terrific.

UR: How do you think the Prize is going to help your efforts?

HS: It really gives legitimacy to this. We got some legitimacy when we won the court cases, but there are still so many people who really don’t understand what fracking is about and why it’s happening here, or they do know but they believe that it’s hopeless and there’s nothing they can do, so they don’t even think about it. This will raise the level of awareness and will help inspire other people to see that there is something they can do, even if they are only one or two people in a town who really feel strongly about this. They can work with their neighbors and their town board to get involved. There's a whole support network of other towns that have already done this.

We continue to get calls from all over the country from people asking what they can do. Even in places where the law is not as favorable as New York, people think, “Well, we should be able to say no. And if the game has been rigged, and the corporations and the big oil companies have gone in and lobbied and gotten a law that’s not fair, we’re going to pass our law anyway— even if it’s not legal or can’t be enforced! We want to make this statement.” That’s been really encouraging to see.

In the beginning, we were trying to work with as many New York communities as we humanly could, hoping for and taking great pride in the movement spreading in New York. To now see this concept of local bans and people liking the idea is tremendous. People are thinking, “State government may be bought and paid for, federal government may be bought and paid for, but they haven’t bought the people in my town yet. I can go out and work with my neighbors and go to my town board meetings, and we can take a stand.” They’re standing up for issues that are both very local, as far as what land uses you want in your community, and very global. By banding together with other community members, we can actually put a dent in fracking and open up the space for renewable energy.

It sends a very powerful political message that all of these towns in New York say no. That has to count for something. It’s a very important statement to add your voice to the people opposing fracking, because if it’s a loud enough voice, we will win.

UR: What would you say to a community that doubts they can bring about real, lasting change?

HS: It brings to mind the words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That is so true. There will be naysayers; there will be people who tell you that you can’t do what you want to do. It’s possible that, technically, by the letter of the law, in your town or your state, you don’t have the right to do this. But our government is also based on the consent of the governed. People can say, “We are not going to allow this industrial activity to take place next to our schools, next to our hospitals, next to our daycare centers.” 

We often think that politicians have so much power and that there’s nothing we can do to stand up to them, but town supervisors will tell you that if you’re looking out at that crowd and they’re going to riot? [laughs] You are not the one in control. A small number of people have the ability to activate a larger group, and when the larger group fully believes that a fundamental right of theirs is at stake, there are things that can be done above and beyond even the letter of the law.

Photo by the Goldman Environmental Prize.