‘Demanding a better government’: environmental lawyer Helen Slottje speaks at Berkeley Forum

Photo of Conversation with Helen Slottje
Berkeley Forum/Courtesy
Environmental activist and lawyer Helen Slottje discussed her experiences banning fracking in upstate New York at the Berkeley Forum Wednesday evening. 

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Environmental activist and lawyer Helen Slottje discussed her experiences banning fracking in upstate New York at the Berkeley Forum on Wednesday.

In 2009, Slottje and her husband became aware that fracking was coming to the state of New York and immersed themselves in that prospect, Slottje said at the event. In 2011, Slottje published an article in the Sierra Club newsletter detailing the zoning laws that would prevent fracking in certain areas of New York, she added.

“It was universally understood that fracking was coming to New York and only the details were left to be worked out,” Slottje said at the event

Local government laws do not regulate the oil and gas industries in New York, according to Slottje, and she saw an opportunity to ban fracking through zoning laws. Slottje won the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to ban fracking, according to the Berkeley Forum Facebook page.

In the article sent to the Sierra Club, Slottje recommended that the New York state municipality avoid industrialization by adopting zoning laws that prohibit high-impact industrial uses, she added.

Slottje believes community building was key to her success and gave “hundreds” of presentations about zoning codes to citizens that helped them believe they had power.

“Giving local governments a voice was certainly not what industries had in mind when it wrote the law prohibiting local government regulation,” Slottje said at the event.

While local laws in New York worked to limit fracking, a significantly different approach to the oil and gas industry would be needed for regulation at the national level, Slottje added.

Imposing restrictions on fracking at the federal level, she said, would require limiting methane emissions, gas leaks and the level of chemicals in the water that is used for fracking.

“The federal laws, to a very wide degree, have wholesale exemptions for the oil and gas industry from those laws,” Slottje said at the event. “The first step is to have meaningful federal regulations.”

The regulatory process ended in 2015 when a report found that the cost of fracking did not outweigh the perceived economic benefits, according to Slottje.

In 2020, however, the state of New York announced a statutory statewide ban on fracking while many communities upstate have local laws that prohibit fracking, Slottje added.

During the audience Q&A portion, she was asked about the effects of fracking on Indigenous land and how to help. Slottje said building a community and demanding better for their land is a good starting point.

“It’s about trying to find a place of power and trying to build relationships for all of us across the country of people supporting one another and finding their voices and demanding a better government,” Slottje said at the event.

Contact Shylie Ati at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shylieati.