If you ask senior attorney Kimberly Ong what her legal specialty is, she may first tell you what it’s not. “I’m not a specialist in oceans, I’m not a specialist in clean energy,” says the veteran of numerous East Coast fossil fuel fights. “My specialization is New York—as a region, a geography, and a people.” For Ong, a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens and kept her word to her parents that she would stay close to home, NRDC’s New York regional team seems a perfect fit.
The Empire State, explains Ong—who initially joined NRDC as a litigation assistant in 2005, a year after receiving her B.A. in history from Columbia University—has the power to shift paradigms around climate action across the country.
“Environmental victories around fossil fuels in New York specifically have the ability to affect the nation. Where New York goes, other states have the chutzpah to follow,” she says. After New York banned fracking in 2015, for example, other states and municipalities, including Maryland and Washington, did the same. In May 2019, New York harnessed the Clean Water Act to stop the Williams pipeline—which would have transported fracked gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, crossing under New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean and terminating in New York City. A month later, New Jersey followed suit.
“New York can be the pioneer for new and inventive ways to stop fossil fuel development, which makes it an especially exciting space to work in,” says Ong, who now directs the Northeast Fossil Free team. The team is laser-focused on an ambitious goal: Stop new fossil fuel development in the area and thereby slow the pace of climate change and its devastating health impacts on frontline communities.
When a pipeline or other dirty infrastructure is planned for a community’s backyard, Ong explains, it can bring neighbors together and inspire people to join the environmental movement in a way that few other issues do. “Climate change can oftentimes seem quite abstract, but projects like these help give people a better sense of what we’re fighting against,” she says.
In her early days at NRDC, Ong supported the efforts of attorneys Nancy Marks (now senior litigation counsel) and Mitch Bernard (now chief counsel and president), closely studying their work and impact in the environmental field. “She has this infectious enthusiasm for everything she does,” Marks reflects, “and she brought it to her administrative work the same way she brings it to her advocacy now.”
Ong set her sights on law school as the next step of her career and enrolled in New York University’s School of Law, graduating in 2009. With a J.D. under her belt, she worked as assistant corporation counsel at the New York City Law Department and then as an assistant attorney general for New York State. But she didn’t stay away from NRDC too long: In 2016, she rejoined the team as a staff attorney with the New York Program.
From the start, one of Ong’s primary focuses was the push to ban fracking in the Delaware River Basin—the first fracking ban NRDC took on and an ongoing campaign for more than a decade. Her work entailed a lot of writing—drafting coalition letters, submitting technical comments, and providing insight into the hazards associated with fracking—as well as in-person advocacy. Ong attended and provided public comments at many of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s public meetings, participated in rallies, and collaborated closely with grassroots and local organizations.
And it paid off: In 2017, Ong and her colleagues celebrated after the Delaware River Basin Commission issued a proposal to ban fracking, largely due to the comprehensive advocacy efforts of NRDC and its partners. The fight finally came to a close in February of this year, with the commission officially banning fracking in the basin.
The victory was immensely rewarding for Ong, an affirmation of why she remains committed to fighting for New York’s clean energy future. “I always say that if I won the lottery, I would still be doing this work, just for free,” she says. “It’s a tremendous privilege to feel like I can step into my whole self with this job.”
Ong is now focusing her energy on fighting the Gibbstown LNG terminal proposed for Gibbstown, New Jersey, a suburban area along the banks of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia. The terminal would ship massive amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) around the world if completed. Ong notes that as we put stricter climate targets into place, the leaders of the natural gas industry are aware that soon there won’t be a role for their product in America’s energy future. As an alternative, they are now looking to ship natural gas abroad. The Gibbstown terminal is one of many LNG facilities that could be built in the United States, so advocates see the outcome of this battle as potentially shaping a larger one to come.
When asked if her job feels like a game of whack-a-mole, fighting projects as they arise across the region, Ong maintains that there is power in defeating the projects one by one. Every win cements New York’s dedication to a clean energy future, inspires other states to follow suit, and contributes to protecting the health of communities, ecosystems, and the climate. And Ong remains just as enthusiastic about her job as she hoped she would be when she first joined NRDC 16 years ago. With momentum building to reach the goals of the Northeast Fossil Free team, she says, “we need to stay focused on our work now more than ever. Even with all the change happening around us, our goals and our mission stay the same.”
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