NEW YORK -- Sighting a celebrity here is such a common event, it borders on the mundane. It's why so many live here, after all: New Yorkers have honed their ability to ignore everyone to such an extent that movie stars tend to become more obstacles on the sidewalk -- recognizable, yes, but able to go about their days without much hassle.
But with respect to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an A-list group of actors and musicians who call the state home have managed to stand out in the political arena as celebrities perhaps never have before. They have also helped to revive an environmental grass-roots movement that was struggling for national footing in the wake of inaction on climate change during President Obama's first term.
These celebrities come from all corners of the entertainment industry but have one thing in common: They own property in or are linked to upstate New York through family and friends. They have a personal stake. And they decided somewhere along the line that they felt strongly enough about proposed high-volume horizontal fracking permits for shale gas that they had to get involved.
The list includes Mark Ruffalo, Debra Winger, Michelle Williams, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Natalie Merchant, Susan Sarandon, Scarlett Johansson and Alec Baldwin. Say what you will about celebrity politics, these few are vocal, well-organized and wealthy and have had a direct effect, helping to postpone permits and possibly kill the issue altogether if Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ultimately decides to "just say no" to the drilling technique.
A look inside why they've gotten involved reveals direct connections to the state. Many own upstate country homes or live there full time. Ono and Lennon like to get away from the city to a dairy farm that was purchased by Sean's father, deceased pop icon John Lennon, in the 1970s. Winger and Ruffalo own homes in rural Sullivan County. Baldwin's mother has lived in Syracuse for decades.
They have also formed a group, called Artists Against Fracking, that is raising money and drawing more international attention to what started as a local attempt to protect the city's upstate watershed (even Lady Gaga and Salman Rushdie are members). The organization is seen as such a force in Albany that critics smarting at its success have lately been demanding that it register as an official lobbying entity and disclose its financial workings like any other political interest group.
Of these celebrities, Winger, a three-time best actress nominee at the Academy Awards, has been singled out as first to the party on the issue, though Ruffalo might be a close second. Winger was instrumental in helping to gain startup-style attention before the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for "Gasland," the Oscar-nominated documentary about the natural gas industry, and has since been heavily involved in demanding the Cuomo administration keep fracking out of the Empire State.
Yet Winger and others insist their anti-fracking movement isn't about celebrity or capitalizing on fame. She says she is not an environmentalist and would have preferred to stay out of politics altogether, partly due to the perception that celebrities with too much time on their hands (or too little information) get involved with pet causes out of vanity.
"I'm going on 38 years of being famous," Winger said with a laugh. "The fact is, I'm allergic to it. I've never been that kind of person."
She explained that, for her, the debate about fracking is a debate about public health, not the environment. Winger insists not enough is known about how fracking fluids can enter into aquifers, so why not postpone permits or forget them altogether because the risk to human health is too high? Why not, she asks, expedite our economy's transition to renewable fuels now rather than relying on natural gas as a bridge fuel between coal and cleaner energy?
"It just seemed that absolutely I didn't have a choice" to get involved, she said. "I had to speak up as a citizen. I was raising three kids out there [in upstate New York], so how could I stay silent?"
On a dirt road in Wyoming
The director of "Gasland," Josh Fox, credits Winger -- who served as a "creative consultant" on the film -- for helping to galvanize public attention to the fracking issue back when he was an unknown theater director shooting his documentary. He said he first became aware of Winger's concern while driving around in Wyoming listening to NPR.
Fox heard Winger interviewed on the subject and decided then and there to seek her out.
"Debra Winger was the first," he said. "I was alone in the middle of nowhere and started pumping my fists."
So Fox got in touch with Winger and showed her some of his footage. She eventually got an executive producer credit on the film but refused to show up in person at Sundance for the debut. Fox says she didn't want to make the issue about her or her celebrity.
"The celebrities who have really been drawn into this fight have all been residents," he said. "You're talking about New York City's watershed. That's a lot of celebrities."
The story behind how Ruffalo got dialed into the movement, which Fox said is driven mostly by regular citizens, is similar. Ramsay Adams, founder and executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, an upstate conservation group, said he approached Ruffalo at a diner in Callicoon, N.Y., and got him to join a trip to Dimock, Pa., with environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 2010.
What Ruffalo saw in Dimock, whose residents have claimed illness due to shale gas extraction, was good enough to get the actor on board, Adams said. He believes this was in part due to Ruffalo's energy but also because at the time there was a bit of a dip in activist motivation after failures in Congress to enact a national climate change policy.
"He lives [in Callicoon] full time," Adams said of Ruffalo, in reference to the Catskills community on the Delaware River. "He's got kids and a family, and they were in school nearby. He eventually said, 'Let me know what I can do.'"
Adams added: "It was really fertile ground for the rebuilding of a grass-roots movement. That's really the message about what fracking has done. I see it as the fight over extreme energy and climate."
Others soon followed, though Fox said celebrity attraction was "entirely organic," and establishment activists close to the debate say there was never an explicit attempt to recruit film stars and musicians. The celebrities, they insist, came of their own accord because they were concerned about the defilement of a region that sits atop natural gas plays in the Marcellus Shale.
A critic might charge they didn't want industry playing ball in their own backyards, but those involved deny it's only about New York and support fracking bans across the country. To them, the anti-fracking cause had better legs to start in the Empire State and spread outward, in part due to celebrity but also because of the state's historic opposition to extractive industries.
"We are not familiar with anyone who was pitched to work on fracking or anything like that," said Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program director at Environmental Advocates of New York. "The celebrities who get involved do so because either they're a member of an organization or hear about it from friends, and they get out and get involved."
Tina Posterli at Riverkeeper made much the same point. She was on the trip to Dimock with Kennedy, Ruffalo and New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter. When Ruffalo put on his activist hat after the trip, others took notice, she said.
To Posterli, this group of celebrities gets it: They do their research and know not to push their fame too hard -- even if it presents a distinct advantage.
"In my experience, celebrities understand the weight they carry with the media and public opinion, and know that by joining a campaign, they can help lend a voice to people who are in the process of being overrun by big business," she said, adding that subsequent participation by Lennon and Ono was due to Lennon's personal relationship with Fox.
"I believe it happened more organically that the celebrity power grew the way it did," Posterli said. "It stemmed from the fact that it hit home coupled with the voice Mark Ruffalo originally brought to the issue."
A double-edged sword
Fox bristles at the suggestion that celebrities should get too much of the credit for elevating the movement. He admits fame helped get the issue "in front of the media" in a celebrity-driven culture, but he insists Ruffalo, Winger and crowd are in no different a position "than millions of Ohioans and New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians are in."
He also hopes the same anti-extractive-industries movement can spread its wings to West Virginia, a much less affluent state than New York that has long been the doormat of the coal industry in the East.
"I would say every single person who's a major mover in this who's a celebrity is just like me: directly affected," he said. "Of course it helps, but I think it really, really helps as long as it stays grounded."
Still, along with the explosion of stories about fracking comes the downside of attaching a movement to entertainment figures. A Matt Damon-inspired movie on fracking, "Promised Land," was widely panned critically and did poorly at the box office, and some have started to take potshots at the New York group for what they see as elitist "not in my backyard" syndrome, or NIMBYism.
Michael Shellenberger, himself a mini-celebrity in the environmental community and author of "The Death of Environmentalism," said the stars involved are "NIMBYs" just like "other wealthy New Yorkers with homes in the countryside." He said they do the larger movement a disservice because "natural gas is far better for landscapes and the climate than coal."
"The celebrity fractivists have succeeded in reversing the environmental movement's long-standing support for natural gas as a bridge fuel away from coal," said Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute. "They have further established that environmentalists are elitist NIMBYs who care more about the view from their mansions than they do about either the environment or the concerns of ordinary New Yorkers."
Bjørn Lomborg, another enviro-celebrity and author of the "The Skeptical Environmentalist," said the problem, in his view, is environmental issues are split between "what feels good and what does good." Pesticides, for example, can contribute to cancer, so celebrities have campaigned against them, but they also dramatically increase global production of fruits and vegetables.
"Fracking shares many of these traits," he said. "It looks ugly, and while there are few if any documented problems with the more than 40,000 fracked wells so far, their downsides get much attention."
Lomborg added, in an email exchange: "It is perhaps inevitable that celebrities will tend to campaign for 'feel good' solutions, but with their immense reach I would like to see more campaigning for 'do good' solutions. If you campaign against fracking gas, it may feel like you're supporting renewables, but the only realistic alternative for the next decades is going back to coal."
Actors, musicians or lobbyists?
Shale gas proponents on the ground in the New York debate acknowledge celebrities have had a short-term effect, but some wonder whether that could backfire in the years to come. Thomas West, an attorney representing landowners in the state, said all the attention could slide the other direction "once they are required to register as lobbyists and report all of their expenses and activities."
"The hypocrisy of their position will become more evident," he said. "Most of the elitists use natural gas for heating and cooking. Their position is not sustainable long term."
West was referencing a hot-button debate in Albany over Artists Against Fracking. The group and its more than 200 members are not registered to lobby the governor or the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, so some have demanded the group pay the fee to register and turn over financial records, as required by state law.
Adams at Mountainkeeper called the tactic "a full-frontal attack by the industry on any celebrity who has the gall to care about the environment."
"Mark Ruffalo does not need to register as a lobbyist," he said. "He's just a person who cares about an issue."
Frank Maisano, an energy-media expert at Bracewell & Giuliani, said the celebrity draw works for anti-frackers, partly because the celebrities appeal to young voters. But he argued the affiliation could hurt enviros in the long run because anyone "can pretty much find a fact pattern that supports your cause even if it is completely irrational in the bigger picture."
When asked whether energy industries are jealous and whether they seek celebrities to advance their own views, Maisano was cagier.
"I wouldn't say we court them, but I certainly think we enjoy having celebrities support any of our efforts," he said. "I think the news media likes the celebrity battles better than we do."
Michael Ross, a political scientist at UCLA and author of "The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations," counters that regardless of how the fracking issue is viewed, the celebrities in this arena clearly made positive gains for the environmental movement nationwide. He called celebrity endorsements critical for fracking in particular.
"Celebrities have helped make it a national issue," Ross said. "It touches on matters like pollution and climate change that often draw the interest of celebrities, so it's a pretty good fit."
For her part, Winger said she never expected her involvement to spiral into a national cause. She believes the movement reflects citizen concerns, not celebrities.
"Say what you want about celebrities leading the brigade, I don't think they did," she said. "I was hoping to help produce a film that I thought would educate people. I'm not a speechmaker."
Fox made much the same argument.
"This was driven by people," he said. "I would say that the real story is about the people who filed 204,000 public comments with the state of New York against fracking."