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NRDC: Defending Communities

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Kate Sinding

Q&A with Kate Sinding, NRDC senior attorney and deputy director of the New York urban program.

How can people in places like New Wilmington (see "Fracking the Amish") defend themselves if they don’t want oil and gas companies to undertake massive fracking operations in their communities?

If a city or town decides it doesn’t want fracking, that community’s voice should be heard and respected. But it can be very difficult for elected officials and community leaders to challenge large corporations and get up to date quickly about the many legal and environmental issues involved with oil and gas drilling. Plus, the rules and regulations are different in each state where fracking wells are being drilled -- and in a lot of states, communities have little or no power to “just say no” to the industry. That’s why NRDC launched the Community Fracking Defense Project last year. We’re offering our legal and policy assistance to local governments in five states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina -- that want added control over the siting of drilling in their communities, or ways to ensure their residents are protected against the harms of fracking.

What are you helping those communities do?

The practical and legal realities in each of these states are different, so it varies. We have been working with our local partners to evaluate the lay of the land and identify the opportunities that are most promising, effective, and potentially precedential in each of these states. In some places, our legal and policy staff can help local officials draft local laws and land-use plans that control the extent of fracking within their borders -- even banning it outright. In others, we’re working with communities to expand their rights to protect themselves under state law. And we can help defend relevant zoning provisions and other local laws that are challenged by gas companies in court. In September, just as we launched this project, NRDC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of a number of municipalities in which we supported a lower court decision that strikes down portions of a Pennsylvania law that would severely limit the ability of local governments to use their zoning powers to control where fracking occurs. Recently, we filed another friend-of-the-court brief in New York seeking to affirm that local governments have broad powers to protect their citizens.

Feature Story: Fracking the Amish

Why is it important to address fracking issues at the local level, in addition to the state and federal levels?

NRDC is working hard to ensure states and the federal government put sufficient rules in place to better protect against fracking’s risks. But, so far, they have fallen short. And communities need to be able to stand up for themselves. Over three quarters of a century ago, our Supreme Court held that communities have the right to enact local laws to protect “public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.” It is hard to imagine a situation where this right would be more critical than with fracking -- a heavy industrial activity that dramatically alters the character of every community where wells are being drilled in substantial numbers.

Is NRDC against fracking?

NRDC opposes expanded fracking until effective safeguards are in place. Over the last decade, the oil and gas industry has drilled thousands of new wells, and they are seeking to expand across the nation as new technology makes it easier to extract gas from previously inaccessible sites. Along the way, fracking has been a suspect in polluted drinking water and a host of other environmental and public health problems in every state where it has popped up. To date, federal and state rules have proven woefully inadequate to protect against the risks. And the industry has used its political power to escape accountability for its actions at every turn. That’s why NRDC is working to protect communities across the nation from the impacts of dangerous fracking practices and help them stand up to oil and gas companies when they’ve been wronged.

Residents or elected officials interested in more information about the Community Fracking Defense Project can contact NRDC here.

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