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…