Energy & Environment

Mark Ruffalo is back to make sure fracking stays banned in NY

New technology might allow for new carbon dioxide fracking technology in the Southern Tier, and lawmakers are moving to ban the new technology.

Celebrity Mark Ruffalo has made fracking a focus of his activism.

Celebrity Mark Ruffalo has made fracking a focus of his activism. Mike Coppola/Getty Images

It’s truly Groundhog Day in Planet Albany as Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo joined with lawmakers and environmental advocates to announce a new anti-fracking bill.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned hydrofracking through an executive order in 2014. Hydrofracking, the practice of pumping water and chemicals deep into the bedrock to fracture it and access more fossil fuels, is largely responsible for the massive increase in domestic fuel production in the 21st Century. The New York ban followed years of extensive advocacy from groups and individuals, including Ruffalo, a longtime environmental activist in New York. Ruffalo and other opponents of fracking argued that the method was a threat to public health in communities near the sites where chemicals were being pumped into the earth. Lawmakers codified that ban in 2020, and environmental discussions largely moved on from fracking. 

Now, Ruffalo has returned to promote newly introduced legislation meant to address a new form of fracking that uses pressurized carbon dioxide, rather than water, to get at methane trapped in shale. A company is currently exploring the possibility of using that method to frack in the Southern Tier with the help of a federal tax credit to subsidize technology to capture carbon and trap it beneath the ground. According to Politico New York, the company sees this as a carbon-neutral fuel operation, injecting the carbon dioxide underground to access methane, then trapping the CO2 released when the methane is burned.

Activists said CO2 fracking is untested, environmentally harmful and poses health risks to surrounding communities. “This is a fight we're willing to have,” Ruffalo said, mentioning that many other original “fractivists” who led the push for the original ban were on the Zoom call as well. “It's ridiculous that the gas industry is now trying to get around our fracking ban by using an experimental form of extracting gas out of shale with carbon dioxide.” While lawmakers believe Department of Environmental Conservation regulations will ultimately prevent it, they want to update the law to explicitly ban this type of fracking. “The minute we heard about this, we jumped in and started writing this piece of legislation,” sponsor Assembly Member Anna Kelles said.

This new anti-fracking push comes as the state faces a plethora of other climate and environmental policy dilemmas. Advocates are still trying to get several key pieces of legislation approved, including a bill that would ban a subsidy for companies to install new gas hookups and another bill that would create a polluter fund meant to raise millions for climate measures. New York is behind in hitting key deadlines imposed in its 2019 climate law, the DEC is still trying to create regulations for a large cap-and-invest program and several key offshore wind projects are facing setbacks over funding.

Lawmakers and advocates said they would prefer not to be talking about fracking again after the state banned it in 2014, but that no one anticipated the use of carbon dioxide at the time. “We don't want to spend a lot of time on this,” said Assembly Member Donna Lupardo of the Southern Tier, who was part of the original anti-fracking advocacy. “We just want to shore this up and move back to the important work we were doing addressing our climate goals. But honestly, you can't blame this group for trying.” 

Kelles said that the current definition of fracking is “narrow enough” that this new endeavor gets around it. “Therefore, we’re expanding the definition.” Lawmakers said their bill is simple, adding just a few words to the law to cover this unanticipated loophole. While they remained open to further changes to enact a more comprehensive ban, lawmakers and activists said the current proposal is meant to protect Southern Tier residents now.