Sunday, November 18, 2012

As health panel reviews NY fracking policy, what’s next? Timing, scope, personnel signal Cuomo’s ambivalence

After being leaked to the press last week, the names of a blue-ribbon panel commissioned to evaluate the soundness of the state’s policy on shale gas are finally public. And with that, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues the appearance of moving his policy on fracking forward while remaining fundamentally uncommitted. (See previous post about his ambivalence here.)

At stake is exploitation of the Utica and Marcellus shales, world class carbon reserves extending under the Southern part of New York. Joe Martens, Commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, announced in mid-September that he was calling on the Department of Health to review public health risks associated with high volume hydraulic fracturing, in part to fend off possible law suits seeking to challenge the integrity of the state’s controversial policy development, now in its fifth year. The health review is headed by DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah, who is overseeing the work of an ad hoc panel of independent experts to advise the state.

The names and qualifications of the panel have been a matter of speculation since the review was announced in September until this past week, when an anonymous state official leaked the names to the Associated Press. Now we know panelists are John Adgate, chairman of the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the Colorado School of Public Health; Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services; and Richard Jackson, chairman of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health.

The credentials and integrity of the group were lauded by fracking critics, fearful Cuomo would use the panel to rubber stamp questionable policy. Drilling proponents criticized the choices. That reaction, like the reaction of partisan parities to the appointment of a judge, in itself gives clues regarding the panel members’ professional predisposition and sympathies. More on that in a moment.

Who they are is important. But equally important is the task to which they have been assigned, the time they have been given to do it, and the influence they could bring to bear on the process. The governor’s office is sharing none of this publically, leaving reporters to piece together possible scenarios.

Technically, the state faces a November 29th deadline to finalize the regulatory framework for shale gas development in New York. If it misses the deadline, the rulemaking process will expire and officials will have to revamp proposals and reopen the public hearings that have become a lightening rod for well-organized public opposition. But it most certainly will take longer than 12 days to put New York’s regulatory house in order. How much longer depends on a collection of unresolved administrative and legislative issues. Economic pressures tied to the price of natural gas, now very low, may also come into play.

Here are some possible outcomes:

Meeting the Nov. 29 deadline: The state issues its regulations later this week or early the following week, narrowly sidestepping the mandate to restart the contentious and time-consuming public process. For this to happen, the advisory panel would have to fast-track a complicated and controversial review, exposing the administration to more criticism from activists that the panel was never intended as anything more than political window dressing. The state could also issue the new rules before the health review is complete without technically violating the law. That would come with a political cost to Cuomo because Martens has told influential environmental groups that the state would not proceed until health issues were taken into account.

Seeking an extension: The administration could file paperwork this week or early next week for a 90-day extension. That would require submitting updated drafts of the proposed rules and allowing 30-days for written public comment. This would open the door for more criticism and delays, but to a lesser degree than would public hearings. As reported by Jon Campbell of Gannett’s Albany Bureau, panelists expect their work to be finished in mid February, timing that would fit with a possible extension. Moreover, the extension would allow Cuomo to test the political water of the new Legislature. Control of the Senate still remains up in the air weeks after the election. Legislation that will influence shale gas policy in New York on issues ranging from moratoria to health studies to home rule depends on the outcome. Regardless, waiting for the Legislature to pick up the political hot potato may deflect some pressure from Cuomo. Or not.

Letting the proposed rules expire: This would essentially send the rank and file policy makers, who have already spent years attempting to evaluate and account for environmental risks of shale gas development, back to the drawing board. Updated policy would have to be re-introduced and subject to more public hearings, which have proven to be an effective tool for fracking opponents to derail or slow shale gas development. The process has already been delayed for years by 80,000 comments submitted in previous hearings and comment periods by critics on both sides of the issue.

Cuomo’s selection of panelists, when finally revealed last week, was met with approval from fracking critics and disapproval from supporters.

Energy in Depth, a gas-industry-funded group, questioned the integrity of previous work by Adgate, co-author of a Colorado School of Public Health study in March implicating shale gas development as a public health threat. As reported by Campbell: “It’s simply hard to imagine how a panel including the author of the most controversial health impact study in the nation ... will produce anything that resembles an objective review,” said Energy in Depth spokesman John Krohn. The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a pro-fracking group, issued a statement along similar lines: “We … are concerned that one member of the committee is the author of a Colorado study which has been widely criticized.”

Public health experts and anti-frackers, meanwhile, praised the panel’s qualifications. Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, characterized panel members as “luminaries” in the field of public health, and well equipped to fully assess the risks of fracking. But, she added, the limited scope and timeframe of their charter does not appear to allow that. “The people are luminaries,” she said. “The process is a dismal fog. There is no transparency whatsoever.”

Lack of more detailed information about the scope and mechanics of the process also drew criticism from other quarters. On Thursday, more than 90 medical professionals publically called for a more independent thorough and transparent process. “New York’s community of medical professionals reiterate our call for an independent, comprehensive health impact assessment of these risks and their attendant costs,” Andrew Coates, a physician at Albany Medical College, said in a statement.

So we approach the holidays with state agencies spread thin with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, the shale gas dilemma far from resolved, political stakes higher than ever, and an important deadline looming.


  1. Great article. I'd let the whole thing expire. The rank and file can cut and paste anything boiler plate and germane from the old to a new general EIS. One key role of government is to protect citizenry and it looks like maybe New York is going down that road, with selection of the health review panel. Fracking proponents are going to complain about anyone that may have done or even read an environmental/human health risk assessment a some point in their career. My guess is O&G wanted the New York equivalent of Tom Ridge on the panel to keep everyone on the "same page" for a consulting fee or $1 mil. per.

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