It was another busy week in New York, with comments from the political elite and action in the Legislature building expectation about the state’s fracking future, but producing no tangible results
… so far.
Last weekend, the Associated Press reported Gov. Andrew Cuomo came “closer than ever” to approving shale gas development in New York. This information was attributed to environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. -- the governor’s former brother in law -- and two other sources “close to the governor.” On Monday, the AP reported that Cuomo denied the “closer than ever” characterization, leaving even more room for interpretation and speculation.
Meanwhile, the NY Assembly passed a moratorium on fracking on Wednesday, a day after a similar bill was introduced by leadership in the Senate.
First, regarding the Cuomo/Kennedy exchange: In the news business, we call this type of story “a talker.” It’s short on hard information and long on public intrigue. There is nothing wrong with talkers. With pressing demand for information on an important topic, and in the absence of a tangible hook to hard news – in this case anything definitive about the status or substance of New York’s evolving fracking policy -- a well-crafted, timely talker can advance leads, stimulate debate, and leverage responses in the interest of making matters public that should be public.
Here’s the lead of AP’s follow-up story Monday:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday a discussion over a new study ... with his former brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., didn't derail an imminent approval of the natural gas drilling method that could remain in limbo for another year.
Kennedy had told the AP that he persuaded the governor to hold off on fracking plans pending information from a $1 million study by Geisenger Health Systems, a care provider in Pennsylvania Shale Gas country. (I’ll cover that in a moment). As we learn a bit later in the story, Cuomo didn’t really clear things up in denial.
"I think the issue suddenly got simple for him," Kennedy told the AP. Then Kennedy paraphrased Cuomo in their discussions: "'If it's causing health problems, I really don't want it in New York state. And if it's not causing health problems, we should figure out a way we can do it.'"
Cuomo agreed with that characterization...
"It sounds like what I've said, it sounds like what I've said to you 9 million times — that this has great possible economic benefit for the state, in a part of the state that badly needs jobs, but you have to make sure it's safe and there is no health risk," Cuomo said. "So that is my general position."
Whether the issue “suddenly got simple for him” is questionable. Regardless, Cuomo takes a reasonable and fair position in explaining his hesitancy. But perhaps the reason the governor has to repeat it so often is because his refusal to elaborate. Neither Cuomo nor his administrators are disclosing how they are evaluating risks, or why this public policy discussion is taking place behind closed doors. The closest we get is the governor’s reinterpretation of his own vague remarks.
So the media turns to other sources, such as Kennedy. And to available documents, such as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. The S-GEIS, as it’s known, is an evolving document last released in draft form in the fall of 2011, when it became a focal point for fracking critics and grass roots protesters who said it fell short of protecting public health and the environment. (Note: My original post incorrectly listed the date of the last S-GEIS draft as 2010.) DEC Commissioner Joe Martens announced last September that he would ask the DOH, with the help of several consultants, to review the current S-GEIS draft (yet to be released) to address questions about health risks from full scale shale gas development. Yet Marten’s request to the DOH came with no publically released scope, timeframe, form, or explanation of what exactly is being reviewed.
A month ago, DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah notified Martens that the department’s review was “on-going” and he anticipated delivering a final report and recommendations “within a few weeks.” (That was on Feb. 12.) Specifically, Shah advised that the DOH would need to take into account studies under way by the federal EPA, Geisinger Health Systems of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pennsylvania, although the memo offered no time frame or explanation of how these multi-year studies would be factored into New York’s review. The Geisinger study, which was a focus of Kennedy’s appeal to Cuomo, is especially significant. The health care institution will draw on its detailed electronic records of hundreds of thousands of patients living near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania to evaluate correlations between shale gas development and health conditions such as asthma, trauma, and cardiovascular disease. The study will consider possible exposure pathways to unhealthy byproducts of fracking through water and air.
Sources close to New York’s process to evaluate shale gas have told me that the DOH and DEC administrators have essentially completed their work, and the outcome is now being managed by Cuomo himself. That comes as no surprise, given the political stakes in the decision. New York sits over lucrative parts of both the Utica and Marcellus shales, which are among the largest natural gas reserves in the world. The Empire State is also the only state sitting over major mineral reserves that has not developed a policy regarding how or if they will be exploited. Polls show voters divided on the subject, and each side is represented by grass roots and strong institutional lobbies pressing Cuomo on an issue that will likely be significant in defining his legacy.
The low price of natural gas, which effectively decreases the worth of the mineral rights that have encouraged landowners to support gas development, takes some pressure off of the Cuomo. With the governor in no hurry to make a decision, advocates for and against are turning to a pivotal battle taking shape in the state Senate. On Tuesday David Carlucci, part of an independent caucus of Democrats that shares control of the Senate with Republicans, introduced S-4046. Carlucci’s bill would place a two-year moratorium on shale gas development, pending the outcome of the studies mentioned in Shah’s report. The Assembly passed a similar measure on Monday, signaling that leadership from both chambers is ready to resolve differences to legislate the matter. Shale gas proponents still hold a powerful card, however. Senate Deputy Republican Leader Tom Libous – who represents fracking supporters in the Southern Tier -- has vowed to block the bill from getting to the Senate floor.
With this, it looks like there will be no shortage of news in coming weeks about New York’s labors to deal with shale gas policy. Whether it amounts to any significant developments is another question.