Love. It may sound corny, but it’s what drove Sandra Steingraber to spark an uprising against an industry focused on short-term economic gain at the expense of long-term environmental health. After winning the Heinz Award in 2011 for her longtime work studying and speaking out on the many ways chemical contamination harms human health, Steingraber, a biologist, writer, and cancer survivor, became a major voice in the nation’s antifracking movement when she turned over her $100,000 prize to the organization New Yorkers Against Fracking.
Steingraber says she was inspired by the environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, whom she had supported as he was being sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases in Utah. “This is what love looks like,” he had said at the time.
“When I received the phone call a few days later that I had just won the award, it was with Tim’s words in my ears,” says Steingraber. Giving away the money “seemed like such an easy decision to make,” she recalls. “I don’t see it as charity. I see it as the best move I could make for my children, my community. For myself.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method of natural gas extraction that pumps water, sand, and chemicals under pressure deep below the earth’s surface via a pipe that pivots 90 degrees to run horizontally into shale. The injected mixture cracks the shale layer; then sand granules hold open the cracks, allowing natural gas to be pumped to the surface—along with millions of gallons of contaminated water and other waste.
In recent years, fracking fever has taken hold across the United States, from Montana to Texas to New York—places with some of the country’s most abundant shale-bound natural gas reserves. Steingraber lives in Ulysses, New York, a village in the Finger Lakes area, the kind of place where locals like to buy their carrots, beets, and onions from the family farm next door. For generations, the region’s economy has depended on its pure, agrarian landscape—not the Marcellus Shale bedrock that lies below much of upstate New York and the surrounding states.
The gas industry, however, argues that the expansion of fracking is essential for the U.S. economy. In 2010, shale gas development supported 600,000 jobs, and lower fuel prices from domestic natural gas are estimated to have added $926 of disposable income per household between 2012 and 2015.
In terms of climate change, natural gas is acknowledged to be a far cleaner fuel source than coal, producing 30 to 50 percent less in greenhouse gas emissions when burned. But methane leaks during production, and an expected increase in consumption due to lower fuel prices is expected to almost completely offset fracking’s lighter greenhouse gas footprint.
Perhaps most worrisome is the threat to water: shattering shale requires anywhere from one million to five million gallons of water, polluting it all with chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, with no guarantee that local wells will escape contamination.
So Steingraber doesn’t buy the argument that fracking is good for the economy.
“Putting our air and water at risk will only bring ruin, misery, and illness, which all have economic costs. No one has calculated that,” she says.
Steingraber’s headline-grabbing gift to New Yorkers Against Fracking gave the movement not only cash but also momentum: within a year of her donation, 28 New York municipalities, including Ulysses, had used local zoning ordinances to ban fracking, and 89 municipalities had passed moratoriums on the practice. In November, voters in Longmont, Colorado, passed a measure to ban fracking, the first in the state, although the ban is now facing a court challenge from the state government.
Although she knows her opponents have deep pockets, Steingraber remains optimistic about her fight.
“We don’t have lobbyists who can influence and give money to Congress,” she says. “We have science on our side and an incredible love for these beautiful places where we live.”