“Dear Governor Cuomo”, a film by Jon Bowermaster documenting the celebrity-lead anti-fracking protest movement in New York state, will debut in Albany tonight, with a screening at the Linda Theater at 7:30 p.m. The film is part of a broader event featuring singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant, Bowermaster, and others who will join a panel discussion with Alan Chartock, journalist, publisher, and CEO of WAMC public radio.
What impact will this event and the broader efforts of the anti-fracking movement have on New York State fracking policy? In search of answers, I decided to write to the governor myself:
Dear Governor Cuomo:
Do you like Natalie Merchant, The Horse Flies, Joan Osborne, and Mark Ruffalo? Just curious, but your taste in music and film is beside the point. I’m guessing that you, an astute politician, are aware that these and other celebrities who call New York State home have marshaled an impassioned collection of talent and creative energy to urge you to ban hydraulic fracturing and leave the carbon reserves locked in bedrock below the state alone. You also probably know that the latest centerpiece of this effort is the film “Dear Governor Cuomo”, produced exclusively to get your attention or, perhaps more accurately, to apply popular pressure to leverage the anti-fracking cause.
Members of this delegation will be in Albany tonight to inspire fans with a potent mix of music and visuals condemning shale gas development as a reckless and exploitive endeavor that comes at the expense of public health and the environment. Albany is one of many stops. After debuting the film at the Woodstock Film Festival in October, director Jon Bowermaster brought his show on the road. He is accompanied by Natalie Merchant and a network of performers, speakers, and scholars who are recruiting and rallying fans to take up the anti-fracking cause in cities throughout New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and California.
I have interviewed many of these activists. My impression is that they are ready to sustain their efforts against fracking by showcasing events in New York state and Pennsylvania, the border of which has become the front line of the national conflict over the merits and risks of shale gas development. The musician/activists are following a tradition that has successfully channeled reform through the pull of popular music in generations past: Woody and Arlo Guthrie… Sam Cooke… Pete Seeger... Graham Nash… Jane Fonda…. The list goes on and on, of course. Celebrities seeking to influence policy ranging from Civil Rights to the Vietnam War to the Labor Movement, to nuclear power regulation have long used the allure of art to shape both social consciousness and conscience.
Your father can relate personal memories of some principal standard bearers of this tradition, I’m sure. Speaking of that, Bowermaster’s film features a clip of Pete Seeger who recalls your father’s legacy and directs some pointed thoughts about fracking your way. You must have seen that …?
My primary question, though, is how much will all this influence the outcome of energy policy in New York state. You are both the state’s figurehead and most influential administrator, and it starts with your policy directives, which are still incomplete as far as anybody can tell, although its hard to know without a more public accounting of where things stand. How much leverage can the celebrities and the popular opinion they reflect and influence apply to your decision to ban or embrace fracking (which, if we are to believe statements from your administration, is still pending)? How much will your decision be influenced by efforts of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State and other industry groups and landowner coalitions who champion shale gas development as economic salvation and independence?
Please don’t say that it all depends on science. People are beginning to see through that. Science is being summoned by both sides with little consensus and resolution likely in the near or distant future. So you will be left to make your decision in the realm of politics, with an imperfect and incomplete body of science as your guide. The issues and ethics in play are global, of course. The world is needy for energy – especially wood and coal-burning third world countries trying to clutch freedoms and living standards that we have enjoyed in this country for generations, accompanied and enabled by the indiscriminate burning of carbon. You lead one of the most energy hungry states in the world sitting over one of the largest carbon reserves. So all eyes are on you for leadership, not just within New York state, but around the world.
Are you still weighing this issue? The price of gas has been low, and the next gubernatorial election has been distant. But you’re now facing a pivotal point. If you allow permitting before the next election, are you ready to deal with the political repercussions from a sustained movement these activists have promised to lead? Are you ready to accept the prospects of a legacy outlasting the life of the reserve? Will you close exemptions that allow the industry to dispose of waste without a full accounting of its hazards?
If you ban it, will you be able to deliver an energy plan that overcomes the inertia preventing renewable energy and conservation from flourishing? Or will you default to policy tied to coal or nuclear sources, or continue with a disproportionate dependence on unhealthy energy sources from outside of the state and even the country?
These are big questions, and hard to answer with generic statements issued through the various offices of public affairs within your administration, which has become your primary vehicle for communicating fracking matters these days. But I guess we will find out soon enough.