Mark Ruffalo, aka the Incredible Hulk, is the natural gas industry’s worst nightmare: a serious, committed activist who is determined to use his star power as a superhero in the hottest movie of the moment to draw attention the environmental and public health risks of fracking.
Last night, Ruffalo hosted a rally and concert in Albany, New York, featuring performances by Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, and others, as well as testimonials of people who live (and suffer) in states where fracking has gone wild. Although the event was sold-out, with about 1,000 people in attendance, the target audience was clearly one man: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is currently considering lifting a moratorium on fracking in the state.
“We are not the sum of dollars and cents, but people of flesh and blood who have entrusted the folks here in Albany to safeguard our health and our common good,” Ruffalo said in fiery remarks that opened the concert. “We are here to celebrate our strengths and bear witness to the devastating public health and safety issues that surround hydrofracking. We are here to lift up the scientists and their better judgments against the paid-for political science of the oil and gas industry. We are here, firmly but respectfully, to ask our governor to be our hero.”
Ruffalo and I talked for a few minutes backstage during intermission. As usual, he looked a little disheveled – unshaven, uncombed, dressed in jeans. It’s easy to make fun of celebrity activists, but Ruffalo, whose activism has included co-founding an anti-fracking advocacy organization, Water Defense, is unpretentious, well-informed, and – befitting of a guy who plays a superhero – fearless in his criticism of an industry that he believes is plundering America and putting our environment and our health in jeopardy.
Are you supposed to be out promoting a movie and talking about the inner life of a superhero?
Well, I’m doing a little bit of that, yes. I’m interspersing hydrofracking and movie promoting. My kids are always asking me, “Are you going out tonight to talk about hydro-fracking? OK, as long as you’re not taking off to go talk about the movie again.”
Who is a tougher opponent, Loki or Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon, the self-described “biggest fracker in the world”?
I’d rather battle with Loki. McClendon – I’ve never met him, but from what I can tell, he’s a sociopath. He’s one of those guys who you know he is lying because his lips are moving. At least when you’re fighting with Loki, you know the good guys are going to win in the end.
Why are you so committed to this fracking fight?
I’ve caught a lot of heat for being an actor with a cause. But this something that is happening where I live, in upstate New York. I didn’t start out against it. When I first heard about hydrofracking, I thought, “Oh yeah, this is great. Gas is clean, it will get us energy independence, it will solve climate change.” Then, ugh – it’s like when the reality of the cheating girlfriend hits you. I saw my neighbors leasing their land to gas companies, and I realized if I didn’t do something, it would destroy the place I live. I’d rather be doing other things with my free time, but when I learned about what is going on with fracking, it really challenged me – like, am I a phony or not? Then I went to Dimock, PA, which is the epicenter of the fracking disaster. I saw people who were suffering, whose lives have been ruined by this. I also saw the total failure of our political system, our social system. The fact that something like this can happen in America is unbelievable.
What’s happening in New York right now and why is it important?
This is the next big frontier for the gas companies. They have been trying to get in here for years, and they haven’t been able to because of a moratorium on fracking that was put through by Gov. Paterson [Cuomo’s predecessor]. But the pressure on the state to end the moratorium and allow fracking has been huge. Also, New York is the cultural and economic center of this part of the world. It also has a vibrant farming community, and it’s where renewable energy got started. So what happens here is of symbolic significance, as well as personal significance.
Have you talked to Gov. Cuomo about fracking?
Not yet. I did talk to Gov. Paterson while he was deciding whether or not to push through the moratorium.
Do you think New York State will ban fracking?
I see a real evolution happening in the governor’s thinking. Until a year ago, I thought it was a done deal [that the state would lift the moratorium on fracking]. They were supposed to issue the regulations three or four months ago. But the more time that passes, the more info comes out about the dangers of hydrofracking. We’re getting better and better science, which is starting to drive the conversation. The governor understands this. So I do think there is a chance it could be banned in New York State.
In the last few months, the Obama administration has issued new rules for water and air pollution at fracking sites, as well as pushed for more disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluids. What do you think of these new regulations?
I like where he is going. Overall, we now have a president who is willing to talk about renewable energy, which is a very good thing. As for fracking, President Obama says we should move forward with it if it doesn’t destroy our water and air. And that really is the key question. It has yet to be proven that we can frack without destroying our water and air. If it can be done, why aren’t they doing it? If there are no problems with hydrofracking, why are they so many problems with hydrofracking? We’re clearly coming to the end of the fossil fuel era. We have the technology to shift to renewable energy, we have the will of the people. The only thing that’s keeping us back is the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system. That’s what we need to change. And that’s why we’re looking to Gov. Cuomo. He did the right thing on gay marriage, and we’re proud of him for that. Now he has the chance to do the right thing again with hydrofracking.