Among the more than 1,500 anti-fracking advocates who descended upon the Capitol for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address was actress Debra Winger, a longtime Sullivan County resident. The three-time Academy Award nominee, who won critical acclaim for her roles in films like Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars before she pulled back from the limelight in the mid-’90s to write a memoir, teach at Harvard University and concentrate on her family. No stranger to politics, Winger, who famously dated Bob Kerrey for several years when he was governor of Nebraska, has long been a champion of progressive causes. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme pulled Winger aside in the Empire State Plaza to speak with her about hydrofracking.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: With all of the chants in the background, I couldn’t hear a word you were saying during the press conference. Could you summarize your remarks?
Debra Winger: We’re so shocked by the degradation of what was supposed to be a process. My favorite sign today was “Chill, Baby, Chill.”… We don’t understand just simply what is the [Department of Environmental Conservation and the Health Department’s] rush. I see signs [from pro-fracking advocates] that say “Save Our Farms, Bring in Gas Drilling,” and I feel like I’m in a Kafka novel, because I know it’s a short-term fix. I know that they’ll get handed a check, but they need to get in a car and drive to Wyoming and Colorado and see bereft ranchers—and then, in a couple of years, in Pennsylvania, bereft farmers, because it does take close to 10 years for human medical damage to start showing, but the animals show it within the first five years. They’re [already] showing it in Pennsylvania. It’s weird to see hairless cows, but you can go and find them.
C&S: Do you think there’s any credibility to the claim that fracking can be done safely?
DW: I think there is absolutely no credibility. But I’m willing to wait to hear it from the people that can prove it to those disbelievers.
C&S: What got you engaged in the hydrofracking issue?
DW: I first learned about it from hearing horror stories from the West. My son made a film called Crude Independence … about the economic woe … bust and boom … of a small town called Stanley, North Dakota, where there’s oil drilling … having nothing to do with environmental ideas, health ideas, just how it changed the small town and how [it] will change again—he’s making it a continuing study.
C&S: You said you were an optimist, but it seems plausible to conjecture from the year-old state health report that was leaked to The New York Times that the Cuomo administration is contemplating lifting the state’s moratorium on fracking to some degree.
DW: I was an optimist until [the Health Department report was leaked]. Last week I really hit the depth of my despair. I beg everyone to go to ThirtyDaysofFrackingRegs.com because to break down the regulations and really look at how they’re worded—[they’re] kind of like the traffic circle in Albany—it all leads you back to the gas industry regulating themselves.
C&S: Since you live on the Marcellus Shale, obviously you’re aware of the profound economic troubles in so many regions of this state.
DW: Of course I am, and that’s why I applaud all of the [economic development] initiatives that the Cuomo administration has put forward. I live among very inspirational farmers … people that are starting up organic farms with a food shed to send to the restaurants in New York, farm-to-table programs that have been enormously successful. Gov. Cuomo in his wine and yogurt speech [laughs] … pointed out all of these wonderful programs. I wish that they would invest in those programs. [They] offer the state more … opportunity than using the resources to promote something that’s financially struggling: the shale gas industry. Every well that they drill they lose money on. [But] what the [gas companies are doing is] looking far into the future. We’re going to export natural gas to France, a country that has banned [hydrofracking] because of its danger. How much more cynical [does] America [have to be] to do something like that? We’re going to export natural gas to China.
C&S: It seems like you don’t view Gov. Cuomo adversarially.
DW: I don’t at all. I look at the whole picture … [but] I need him on this issue to stop being a politician and govern. I’ve been with people who were running for office, I’ve been with people that are elected, I’ve been with them after they’ve served long periods of time. I don’t begrudge the politician. I might like or dislike what needs to be done to win an election, to stay in office, but then there’s a moment when you have to govern.
C&S: A lot of the protestors here say that this is a watershed moment for Gov. Cuomo in his political career if he has future aspirations for the presidency. Do you agree?
DW: I totally agree, and I think it won’t be forgotten on this side.
C&S: Do you think that for people who have celebrity that there is a moral imperative to try to enact positive change?
DW: I hate the word moral, but I will insert ethical. Thank you for your microphone—I could direct you to five people who will be much better spoken than I. I definitely don’t go out of my way to find a platform, but when asked, I answer. I’m a homeowner, a landowner, and have been for 22 years.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Crude Independence, Debra Winger, Department of Environmental Conservation, fracking, hairless cows, Health Department, hydraulic fracturing, Hydrofracking, Marcellus Shale, pennsylvania