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December 19, 2014

New York's Grassroots Triumph

In New York State, at least, sanity has prevailed. By banning fracking, Governor Andrew Cuomo has acted to protect his state's citizens from a rapacious industry whose presence would inevitably result in significant health and environmental consequences.

It's hard to overstate how important this victory is. For the past five years, New York has been one of the few states wise enough to maintain a moratorium on a practice that has devastated thousands of neighborhoods and thousands of square miles of landscapes across the United States. Fortunately, after receiving a report from the state's Health Department that found fracking could pose "significant public health risks," Governor Cuomo concluded that even a single fracking site in New York State would be one too many.

The final decision may have been the governor's, but the real credit for victory over the immensely powerful fossil fuel lobby goes to the passionate anti-fracking activists of New York. Thousands of ordinary (and not so ordinary!) people worked tirelessly to spread the word about the dangers of fracking. They pushed for a moratorium when few thought it was possible. They faced years of opposition from the oil and gas industry and their friends in government, and they never gave up. So this is their hard-earned and well-deserved victory, but it's also something more. It's a ringing affirmation that grassroots organizing really is powerful enough to stop these polluters before they can even get started. That lesson will be taken to heart in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities across the country. Organize and work together, and you can stop the frackers, stop the coal trains, stop the gas-export terminals, and start racing toward 100 percent clean energy for everyone.

Activists in New York fought to stop fracking for the same reasons that the Sierra Club opposes it: the appalling risks and destructive footprint. But in New York, as elsewhere, fracking is all the more foolish when much better energy options await full development. New York has a tremendous economic opportunity in renewable energy. Its Renewable Portfolio Standard, with a goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2015, has already been successful at bringing new projects online, including 21 new wind farms. It has helped create hundreds of new jobs and driven $2.7 billion in direct investments in the state. However, the program will sunset in 2015.

Although the Cuomo administration has launched several energy initiatives to transform the electricity sector, none of those programs includes measurable benchmarks for getting renewable energy to scale. This week, the Long Island Power Authority's Board of Trustees voted to approve just a fraction of the renewable energy contracts promised by Governor Cuomo in his LIPA reform legislation. So although the governor has demonstrated that he's serious about protecting the health and well-being of New Yorkers, he needs to show the same kind of leadership in developing a strong, prosperous renewable energy economy for New York.

One more thing: Now that Governor Cuomo has announced to the world that fracking is too dangerous for New York, how can the governors of other states justify accepting those same risks? Are the risks and the destruction of fracking somehow more acceptable if you live in California, Ohio, Illinois, or Maryland? Do the people living in those states have less to lose than New Yorkers do? Of course not. New York has its fracking ban, which is a wonderful thing. Now it's time to protect the rest of America from fracking and let our country transition to the prosperous, clean-energy economy that we need. 

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