A plan anonymously floated by the Cuomo administration last week to allow shale gas development in economically distressed areas of New York state while banning it in others is facing deflating criticism from both drilling proponents and critics.
The plan, reported Danny Hakim if by New York Times on Wedneday, echoed a proposal outlined by the National Resource Defense Council earlier this year. Specifically, the NRDC advised the state Department of Environmental Conservation to consider initially issuing permits for fracking within designated communities as part of a three-year pilot project. Permitting could then proceed elsewhere when fracking was deemed safe.
Leaders of groups on opposite sides of the debate, ranging from New Yorkers Against Fracking to the American Petroleum Institute, this week characterized the plan as unfair, unworkable, and legally unsound. Karen Bulich Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council (a division of the APL) said limiting shale gas development to certain zones was bad for landowners, the state, and the industry. If science proves fracking safe, then permits should be granted on a first-come, first serve basis without geographic restrictions, she said. “The governor has said ‘science will determine this,’ and I think that is the expectation on both sides of the issue.”
Anti-fracking activists held a similar dislike for the plan, derived from a diametrically opposing view. Sandra Steingraber, a founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said the plan would make impoverished communities desperate for economic development guinea pigs for shale gas development. “In our state, people faced with economic inequity would include those living in communities in the Southern Tier, which are not only disproportionately impoverished but also disproportionately exposed to environmental pollutants left behind from previous industries.” She cited Monarch Chemical, IBM, and Endicott Johnson tanneries
Representatives from each side said their positions were grounded in justice. For industry supporters, justice means that landowners and residents have a right to pursue the economic fruits of the industry without suspect geographical boundaries. For anti-frackers, justice means that a practice deemed too risky for one community should be banned in all communities.
The fracking controversy has been raging for four years in New York state while the DEC has attempted to update its policy for permitting shale gas wells through a review called the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The latest chapter of the controversy began on Wednesday, when Hakim sourced “a senior official at the State Department of Environmental Conservation and others with knowledge of the administration’s strategy” with a report that the state would at first limit fracking to “portions of several struggling New York counties along the border with Pennsylvania, and to permit it only in communities that express support for the technology.” The plan was similar to a recommendation by the NRDC suggesting a three-year pilot project in a limited area of the state to prove fracking safe. Since then, officials have spent the last several days distancing themselves from the plan. State officials, and Cuomo himself, have denied that any such plan existed. Officials at the NRDC, meanwhile, said they continue to stand against fracking anywhere until it is proven safe.
The reaction has been especially strong from New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of grass roots groups lead by Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and author who has written about the impact of pollution on children. NYAF is planning rallies in Binghamton and Albany on Tuesday and Wednesday aimed at the governor and the NRDC. Kate Sinding, an attorney representing the NRDC, last week apologized for the agency’s comments that “have created concern and confusion.” She added that the agency is calling for a “continued moratorium on new fracking until the environmental and health risks are fully and properly considered.”
But skeptical activists are demanding that the NRDC formalize this position, signaling a potential falling out between the $100 million mainstream environmental institution and many of its grass roots supporters. Walter Hang, an activist helping to organize the rallies in Binghamton and Albany, demanded that NRDC officials sign a letter requesting Cuomo “withhold drilling permits for any demonstration project in New York, and require full compliance with Executive Order No. 41” (by Gov. David Paterson to protect the public from the ill effects of shale gas development). “It is extremely important that we do not provide credibility to groups that might support the Governor's unconscionable, wretchedly bad proposal when all is said and done,“ Hang added.
Central to the fracking debate in New York is “home rule” – an ideal that would enable local municipalities to determine the future of shale gas development within their borders. The Cuomo plan reported by Hakim would honor the wishes of communities that wanted shale gas, as expressed through various town board resolutions, while keeping it at bay in communities that passed zoning laws to ban it.
Leaving the decision up to local governments is not a good option for the industry, Moreau noted. For a gas play the size of the Marcellus to be effectively developed over the course of decades, the industry needs a predictable and uniform regulatory environment from one town to the next to ensure access to large, contiguous tracks to build out extensive shale gas infrastructure over time.