Friday, January 31, 2014

Veil may be pulled from NY’s review of fracking in 2014 State has 45 days to begin releasing files on health review

Developments on the status of New York and shale gas unfolded on two fronts this week.

The first was widely reported: Joseph Martens, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s, environmental chief, told a legislative panel that the state’s moratorium on high volume fracking, now in its sixth year, would last at least another 14 months – through the next fiscal year. As he has done before, at Wednesday’s hearing Martens repeated what was already known – that the state Department of Health was studying the issue. And as before, he offered no specifics.

The second development, which went mostly unreported, may soon pry loose an explanation. Under the threat of a lawsuit by a citizens action group called Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Cuomo’s administration settled a case to release administrative documents, letters, and other records detailing the DOH study that will determine the outcome of the governor’s decision to allow or ban fracking – whenever that decision might come. (Details of the settlement, arbitrated in the state Supreme Court, are posted below.) The state has 45 days from January 10 to release some files, and 75 days to release others to comply with open government laws. The SLPWA, represented by attorney Rachel Treichler, will continue to pursue a legal claim if they find the records that the state releases do not comply with the Freedom of Information request outlined in the settlement, according to Mary Anne Kowalski, SLPWA President

Cuomo’s record on the question of whether the state will allow exploration and development of the Marcellus Shale is characterized by a sense of ambivalence, which is justifiable, and opaqueness, which is not.

Shortly after Cuomo began his first term in 2010, he identified the shale gas question as a priority, and insisted that the policy review that began under the previous administration would be expedited under his leadership.  In June of 2012, Cuomo proposed allowing drillers to begin work in communities where town boards favored it, but not in places opposed. But this and any other indication of industry support that Cuomo has uttered has triggered substantial grass roots protests and critical backlash from influential institutions and individuals within the governor’s political base. In short, fracking opponents characterized places where the state would begin permitting high volume hyraulic fracturing as “sacrifice zones” and they questioned why shale gas development would be allowed in some areas if it was unsafe in others.

Since announcing plans in September, 2012 for the Department of Health to become involved in the review, Cuomo and his staff have refused to talk about the fracking issue except in the most vague terms.  Even outside experts hired to make key assessments are bound by contracts that include a clause prohibiting them from disclosing or discussing the proceedings or records involved.

A pause in the race to frack may be well justified pending a more thorough review of policy, which is antiquated and ill equipped to handle the pressures from wide scale unconventional shale gas extraction. But withholding information – notably the scope, timing, and protocol for the health review -- from the public has invited only suspicion and attacks from parties both for and against drilling. (In addition to the Freedom of Information challenge by the SLPWA, I recently wrote about a legal challenge to the governor’s approach by landowners, represented by industry attorney Tom West.)

At the 2013-14 budget hearings a year ago, Martens told legislators that the policy review, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), would be finished in “a matter of weeks.” Mysteriously, that proved to be entirely wrong. The administration’s only explanation has come from the vague declaration from Health Commissioner Nirav Shah, summed up in a quote reported by Gannett’s Jon Campbell last month: “Until I’m comfortable with the state of the science, I’m withholding my recommendation.”

It’s a matter of record that there is no money allocated in next year’s state budget for the necessary administrative oversight for shale gas development, or revenues that might come from it, so Martens was obliged to connect the dots for legislators: No budget allocation means no drilling.

Shah, who holds the keys to the decision based on the outcome of his review, is scheduled to testify on budget issues in front of legislators on Monday. Perhaps he will be willing to pre-empt any outfall from the soon-to-be public records leveraged through the tenacity of the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association with a clearer report of the scope, timing, protocol, and preliminary findings of the health investigation.

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