Mark Ruffalo, forty-four, doesn’t look like an Oscar-nominated actor in his worn jeans, work boots, and riotous curly hair. He looks like Paul, the sperm donor motorcycle dude in The Kids Are All Right, or Terry, the feckless brother in You Can Count on Me. But his movie-star status gives him a voice that carries more than most for the causes he champions and the clout to persuade fellow actors and upstate New York neighbors like Debra Winger and Ethan Hawke to lend their support.
Ruffalo criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and pushed for legalized gay marriage, but the prospect of New York’s issuing permits for the natural gas extraction technique called high-pressure hydraulic fracturing (fracking, for short) hits him where he lives, literally. He bought twenty-seven acres in Sullivan County fifteen years ago when he was performing off-Broadway in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. Three years ago, he, his wife (the actress Sunrise Coigney), and their three children moved from Los Angeles to a converted dairy farm on the Delaware River. Unfortunately, his land sits atop the Marcellus Shale, one of the richest shale beds in the world, a hot property for dozens of gas and oil companies.
Ruffalo will appear in Thanks for Sharing with Gwyneth Paltrow, Now You See Me with Jesse Eisenberg, and as the Hulk in a superhero romp The Avengers, due to be released this summer. But when he’s not filming for the big screen, Ruffalo is filming a video for his waterdefense.org website, lobbying legislators, holding an anti-fracking fundraiser, or trying to find economic alternatives to local land leasing. So far his environmental advocacy has earned him a Global Green Millennium Award and a Meera Gandhi Giving Back Foundation Award. Time magazine chose him for its “People Who Mattered” in 2011.
On November 30, I met Ruffalo in lower Manhattan at a public hearing to allow residents to react—in speech and writing—to the New York State Department of Energy Conservation’s proposed regulations for natural gas drilling. At a pre-hearing press conference, the crowd cheered one speaker after another who bashed the gas and oil industry. Then Ruffalo spoke. “I want to ask why,” he said, “in the face of science, we are wasting so much state money, time, and energy wallowing in the muckpit of gas drilling when what this state wants is renewable energy?” In a quieter setting, I asked the actor why he lived within sight of the Catskill Mountains rather than the Hollywood Hills.
Q: How did you first get involved in the opposition to fracking?
Mark Ruffalo: I live in Callicoon, New York, near the Delaware River, and above a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. I heard about this new technology of gas extraction that was coming to my town. At first blush, it sounded like a pretty great thing. But then I did some research and began to hear nightmares coming out of industrial sites in Wyoming and Colorado. That led me to do more research and in June 2010 to visit Dimock, Pennsylvania, with Robert Kennedy Jr.
Q: This is the same community Josh Fox made famous for its flammable drinking water in his Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland.
Ruffalo: That’s right. Our trip was organized by Catskill Mountainkeeper Ramsay Adams. We inspected contaminated wells and heard residents’ stories of feeling abandoned. In fact, they were looking to Kennedy and me to save them. It was shocking to me, but that experience set me on my path. I began to connect with groups committed to fighting natural gas drilling in New York. Julia Walsh of Frack Action was traveling all over the state at that time warning of these risks, and I saw she was very effective. I’ve testified at the legislature in Albany six times, traveled to D.C. with Josh Fox, and spoken at screenings of Gasland. I go where I’m needed.
Q: New York’s state government seems to think it can avoid the problems of fracking that other states have faced—methane gas migration, equipment failure and blowouts, disposal of spent fluids.
Ruffalo: The proposed regulations are faulty, and they leave out probably the most important risk of this new technology—the health risk to humans and animals. We have no studies on the long-term effects to our health. An EPA report in 1987 documented groundwater contamination in West Virginia from hydrofracking fluids, but it was ignored. Confidentiality agreements between leaseholders and gas companies silence complaints.
Remember that high-volume horizontal, hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other federal laws. For example, if a company isn’t compelled to disclose what chemicals it’s using, how can you regulate it? If you suspect that a resident’s well or local stream’s been poisoned, how can you prove it? Fifty-nine scientists signed a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo about their concerns. The governor keeps saying he wants to rely on science, not emotions. The truth is we don’t know if this technology can be done safely.
Q:Have you noticed that when scientists report research adverse to the interests of the oil and gas industry, they are immediately attacked?
Ruffalo: Yes, and media talking points are usually based on oil and gas industry-supplied data. Burning natural gas will not save us from climate change. It’s the same as burning any other carbon-based fuel. Our government is pushing natural gas as a “transition fuel” and wants to rebuild our energy infrastructure to accomplish that. Why not take the billions President Obama is proposing and invest it in renewables? Time is not on our side. A recent International Energy Agency report estimates we have five years before the chance to reverse climate change closes.
Q: So we have no choice but to move to renewable energy now?
Ruffalo: We have the technology; what we lack is the collective will. I’ve spoken with Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University. We’ve been working on a renewable energy plan for New York that would get us off of carbon-based fuels in the next fifteen years. He’s done the science; he’s done the math. The biggest industry hoax is that the United States can’t move to renewable energy now. It’s a lie.
Q: How do you answer critics who insist that activism has no effect on how decisions get made?
Ruffalo:I say they’re wrong. On November 18, the Delaware River Basin Commission postponed its vote on rules governing fracking in the Delaware River watershed. The Obama Administration rejected construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In New York, the Department of Energy Conservation received 61,400 comments on its proposed fracking regs, and now momentum is gathering for a ban—not just a moratorium. That’s the power of popular protest.
Q: In Sullivan County where you live, farmers are struggling to keep their farms. An offer of $5,000 an acre from the gas industry and the promise of future royalties must be tempting. Farmhearts (farmhearts.org) is your response to farmers who may feel they have no choice but to sign leases. How does it work?
Ruffalo: Our motto is: “Lending a hand to the hands that feed us.” We’re a nonprofit designed to support farmers by giving grants, finding new markets for produce, and supporting legislation that benefits local agriculture.
Q: You launched another nonprofit, Water Defense (waterdefense.org), that stresses the connection between “extreme energy extraction”—tar sands oil, fracking, deep-sea drilling, mountaintop removal—and climate change. How do you explain that connection?
Ruffalo: We’ve left the long-loved era of cheap, easy energy extraction and entered a new era of extreme energy extraction. All of these methods of extreme energy extraction destroy our water systems. Water is number one on most people’s environmental concerns for the last fifteen years, but no one was addressing that directly. We started Water Defense to fill that space. Our message gets at the heart of our ecological challenge: namely, that we have to move away from our dependence on carbon-based fuels. Climate change is the greatest threat to our existence in our short history on this planet. Nobody’s going to buy their way out of its effects.
Q: You brought your family to Washington, D.C., on November 6 to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas. Why was that protest important?
Ruffalo: It’s the same beast, a vampire squid sucking the life out of us. TransCanada originally said the pipeline project would create 250,000 jobs. We looked at that number closely and challenged it. The company downgraded it to 22,000 jobs, and then 6,000 jobs. Oil extraction from Canada’s tar sands consumes a huge amount of natural gas. Where do companies get that gas? From hydrofracking.
Q: Which brings us back to New York. Why did you choose to live in Callicoon instead of, say, Los Angeles or New York City?
Ruffalo:: I first saw this area of rural western New York when I was a struggling actor living in New York City in the 1990s. I was invited upstate, and was floored at how beautiful it was. It reminded me of where I grew up in Wisconsin. The social mix attracted me, too; everyone in Callicoon lives side by side—farmers, artists, mechanics. I wanted my three kids to be able to leave the house, catch salamanders, help me weed the garden, play in the forest, the creeks, the rivers. That was the life Sunrise and I wanted for all of us.
Q: How do your kids view your environmental advocacy?
Ruffalo: My kids get very upset with me when I leave to do film work, but they have a lot of patience with me when I leave to do environmental work.
Lisa Mullenneaux is a Manhattan-based journalist and book author. In the May 2011 issue of The Progressive, she wrote a profile of the Palestinian actor-director Mohammad Bakri. More of her articles are available at www.lisamullenneaux.com.