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Earthjustice Insider

Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg

“As soon as I got my feet wet, I realized this was one of the most serious environmental threats the state of New York was likely ever to face.”

“Frankly, I grew up in one of the least outdoorsy families you could imagine,” laughs Deborah Goldberg, when asked whether she spent much time outdoors as a child. “My parents never took me camping or canoeing.” But she’s always had a love for animals—and a passion for justice, both of which have profoundly influenced her choice of work.

Deborah Goldberg, Managing Attorney, Northeast Regional Office.
Photo by Tom Bernhard
Deborah Goldberg, Managing Attorney for the Northeast Regional Office.

Now one of the country’s foremost experts on issues related to drilling for oil and gas, “I became an environmental lawyer by accident,” Goldberg says. Her first interest was in social justice issues such as civil rights and women’s rights, but she ended up taking a job in a small private environmental law firm that also allowed her to do a substantial amount of pro bono social justice work.

After leaving that job, she spent 10 years working on voting rights and election reform. But she never forgot a trip to Costa Rica, where she was “absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of the birds.” As she began to read more widely about critical environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, she decided to return to environmental law and help make a difference.

Then Earthjustice opened its Northeast Regional Office in New York City, in January 2008. Six months later, Goldberg came on as the office’s first managing attorney. “It was perfect timing, real serendipity, that I had an opportunity to apply for the managing attorney job here and work in the area of my greatest concern.” She immediately dove into the controversy swirling around hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales.

“When I started, it was literally three days after the governor of New York had signed legislation designed to fast-track fracking,” she says. “As soon as I got my feet wet, I realized this was one of the most serious environmental threats the state of New York was likely ever to face. And even though fracking hadn’t really started in New York, it was proceeding full speed ahead in Pennsylvania, which is also part of our region. We were very concerned about the impacts on communities there.”

When the oil and gas industry came to the town of Dryden, New York, (population: 14,500) with plans to start fracking, things didn’t turn out quite how they expected. Also: Photo feature on Dryden

A Precedent-Setting Case

Goldberg worked with other organizations to develop a knowledge base around fracking, brainstorm communications strategies, and identify potential litigation. When some communities in the region began banning fracking or restricting its development, defending their right to do so emerged as a priority.

Eventually this would lead to a case defending the Town of Dryden, New York, against a lawsuit brought by an oil and gas company seeking to overturn zoning amendments that made it impossible to develop shale gas within the Town’s borders. Dryden leaders asked Earthjustice to step in on appeal; Goldberg represented the town all the way up to New York’s highest court—and won.

  • Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg gives oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals in a case determining the right of towns to ban oil and gas development within their borders.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Goldberg gives oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals in the Dryden case.
  • Goldberg gives oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals in a case determining the right of towns to ban oil and gas development within their borders.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Residents from Dryden listen during oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals.
  • Goldberg speaks to reporters following oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals in the Dryden case.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Goldberg speaks to reporters following oral arguments at the New York State Court of Appeals in the Dryden case.
  • Marie McRae, a resident of Dryden.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Marie McRae, a resident of Dryden. "I thought the industry was so powerful and that there was nothing I could do. Then I learned there was something I could do just by talking to my neighbors."
  • One of the many farms near the Town of Dryden.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    One of the many farms near the Town of Dryden.

“The Dryden case was really significant not only because it was a groundbreaking precedent for New York, but also because it inspired people all over the country to stand up to the oil and gas industry,” Goldberg says.

“People in many different states looked at Dryden and thought, well, if they can do something to defend themselves when the federal government isn’t doing its job and the state is abandoning their interests, then maybe we can find a way, too. Watching that small local fight turn into a national movement of highly energized ‘fractivists’ was an extraordinarily exciting thing for me.”

Be Be White and his son Brayton stand along the fence that separates the railroad tracks from Ezra Prentice Homes.
Photo by Earthjustice
Be Be White and his son Brayton, by the fence separating their home from railroad tracks carrying explosive Bakken crude oil to a nearby railyard in Albany, New York. Earthjustice attorneys have filed state and federal lawsuits on behalf of Ezra Prentice Homes. Learn more: Watching The Rails: One Community’s Quest For Safety

Fighting Alongside Communities

The Northeast office has developed a deep expertise in climate and energy issues, particularly in reining in fossil fuels, and is eager to take on more cases to move the region to clean energy, Goldberg says.

The office also has a strong and diverse program of work focused on environmental health and toxics, and former NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner, who joined the team in New York last fall, is developing a sustainable food and farming program that she believes will generate some really interesting work over the next five to ten years. And although the Northeast region doesn’t have big national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, Goldberg and her colleagues are devoted to preserving its special places and wildlife, including New York’s Adirondack Forest.

“I feel extraordinarily lucky to have landed here at Earthjustice,” Goldberg says. “In just the short time I’ve been here, we’ve grown enormously, and I think we’ve become more strategic about coordinating and setting priorities.

With more than a hundred attorneys in offices across the country, Earthjustice works to secure a just, flourishing world for all.

The Northeast Regional Office is located in New York City, with staff also based in Albany. Learn more

“We have amazing lawyers who are really tough fighters and at the same time are able to build strong partnerships with a diverse array of groups. I don’t think we’d be nearly as effective if we weren’t fighting beside and learning from the people whose health and communities are most affected by industrial pollution and other environmental burdens.

“I’m also really inspired by how tenacious our staff and our partners can be. There are people here who have been engaged in decades-long campaigns to protect the things that are so dear to us—our roadless wild lands, wolves, the Arctic.

“They win, and then there’s another challenge, and they win that one, and there’s another challenge. They just never give up.”

By Eileen Ecklund
Originally published in the Earthjustice Insider, Summer 2016

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.