In Conversation with NRDC’s Kate Sinding: Fracking, Land Use, and NYC’s Drinking Water

Kate Sinding. Image Credit: NRDC.

Kate Sinding. Image Credit: NRDC.

Kate Sinding is a Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council for the New York Urban Program. She has lived all over the world, spending her childhood years in Pakistan, the Philippines, and Kenya, as well as various locations in the United States. She studied women’s rights and international development at Barnard College. Sinding went to law school at New York University, where she earned a joint degree in law and public policy at Princeton. She started her environmental career at Sive, Paget & Riesel and dedicated herself to the firm for 10 years. Upon becoming a partner with the firm, Sinding remembered her desire to do non-profit environmental work and left the firm to pursue a career at the NRDC.

Early on in her career at the NRDC, Sinding worked on fighting five Las Vegas-style casinos that were proposed for the Catskill region of upstate NY. The NRDC’s stance was that such an intense land use was inconsistent with the region’s large system of drinking water reservoirs. Those reservoirs supply approximately 90 percent of NYC’s drinking water. This source of clean, unfiltered water is maintained thanks to partnerships between the State, City, local municipalities, and environmental organizations that keep the watershed untouched by development through watershed agreements intended to preserve large swaths of land around the reservoirs. Though the casino projects have been successfully fended off thus far, Sinding and the NRDC quickly learned that there was another looming threat to NYC’s drinking water.

Sinding’s involvement with the protection of the Catskill watershed made her the natural choice to head up the NRDC’s battle against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the area. The entire NYC drinking water reservoir system lies atop the Marcellus Shale. The Marcellus Shale, a large black shale formation underneath a large portion of southern NYS, is rich in natural gas. Other states on top of the Marcellus Shale, in particular Pennsylvania, have allowed gas drilling to take place on the surface over the last few years with varying successes, failures, and environmental issues. The NRDC was alerted to the possibility of fracking in NYS in 2008 when a bill was pushed through the state legislature that amended the oil and gas drilling law. Up to that point, low volume vertical drilling for natural gas was common in upstate areas and by statute, gas companies needed to control 40 acres of land around the drilling site in order to drill. The 2008 bill increased the required area to 640 acres, which could suit high volume horizontal fracking. A relatively new technology, horizontal drilling gives gas companies the ability to extract more gas from a single drill site by angling a drill horizontally across the shale layer. The bill passed but not without the NRDC and various other stakeholders that convinced then Governor David Paterson to direct the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to subject the new practice to environmental review before a drilling permit could be obtained.

Since then Sinding and the NRDC have been working to ensure that the environmental and public health impacts of fracking are analyzed and considered before any final government decision is made on whether and to what extent to allow fracking in the state. The state is in a “de facto moratorium” while the DEC completes its Environmental Impact Statement, with the NYS Department of Health now analyzing the public health impacts. While small victories have been accomplished by activists and environmental organizations, like ensuring that areas around the Catskill watershed are off-limits to fracking, there are still many concerns over the breadth of impacts. For example, while fracking is prohibited in preserved areas around reservoirs, there are concerns about contaminant migration into public and private aquifers, adequacy of regulatory enforcement, and damage to NYC’s aging water supply infrastructure.

To protect vulnerable natural resources and local drinking water supplies, Sinding helped establish the Community Fracking Defense Project with Catskill Mountainkeeper. The project seeks to provide guidance to municipalities that wish to ban fracking or help communities find potential land use challenges if fracking occurs. Sinding and the NRDC have been bolstered by recent appellate division decisions that have deemed that municipalities have the power to control fracking within their borders as a land use. Sinding and a small team also offer outreach to these small towns facing big decisions. Sinding believes that the popular argument of jobs that gas drilling will provide vs. the environment is a “false frame.” The NRDC seeks to change the conversation to focus on clean, renewable energy as an economic driver for struggling NYS towns, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy and climate change.

– Amber Gonzalez

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