Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Cuomo’s choice to ban fracking driven by science, politics
Tonight, I was scheduled to cover a town board meeting in Windsor, New York, where officials were going to review a plan to change their zoning to allow fracking. The process for a zoning change promised to be long and contentious, and was necessary in light of a recent court ruling putting the decision of whether and where to drill in the hands of local governments.
Things changed dramatically this afternoon, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would ban shale gas development statewide due to unacceptable health risks. Cuomo’s position, backed by a long-awaited report from the state Department of Health, is a departure from his earlier position that he would allow fracking where local governments favored it. Reporters, pundits and the public they serve are still getting their minds around Cuomo’s emphatic decision, which came after more than six years of policy review. While it puts the matter to rest, many questions remain: What are the legal consequences? Do industry lawyers and supporters, who have been beaten at every turn in their efforts to bring shale gas to New York, have another challenge in them? Or is this the end of the line?
Those answers will come soon, but apparently, from my conversations with sources and a press-release from the Joint Landowners Association of New York, not tonight. The news of the hour is that, after a six and a half-year journey, fracking is dead on arrival in New York. Along that line, I share my response to a request by Andrew Revkin, author of New York Times Dot Earth, for a "what just happened" analysis. (Revkin’s compilation of reaction from many informed sources can be found here.)
Cuomo’s decision is consistent with his progressive politics that got him to where he is now. It's a bold move and I optimistically take it as sincere attempt to overcome the inertial forces of fossil fuel dependency. Success here could add considerably to his legacy. But he has much more to do. The fracking ban needs to be accompanied by practical reforms and initiatives in energy development & consumption. How much longer will New York City residents have to rely on Fuel Oil as their primary source of heat? What about coal burning plants? I have written about the answer to these questions by a group of scientists and professionals that have contributed to the credibility of the anti-fracking movement. I offer that post again here.)
So why did it take six and a half years? Science takes time. Establishing risks of high volume hydraulic fracturing and the new era of on shore drilling it has enabled is especially difficult because shale gas development is relatively new. The industry controls most of the information and has plenty of legal, scientific and political wherewithal to challenge any conclusions that don’t work in its favor.
Science is part of the calculus. But despite what Cuomo would like us to believe, scientists don’t make these kinds of decisions. The full equation is Science + politics = policy. Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was focused on him. At one point, he told Susan Arbetter, host of Capitol Press Room, that it was the most effective political action campaign he had seen. (I will link to that interview as soon as I find it, but I wanted to get this post up right away.) Activists, both institutional and grass roots, promised to step up their efforts if Cuomo allowed even a single well.
The Home Rule decision by the state’s high court in June, and the depressed price of natural gas made a decision politically easier. Cuomo would have a hard time taking the perceived riches of fracking from landowners back when landmen were at their doors with big checks in hand. Nobody is currently seriously looking at shale gas exploration, much less development, in New York with gas prices as low as they are and the encumbrances of Home Rule.
New York has become a showcase for the anti-fracking movement, and Cuomo's decision today has raised the movement's stature nationally. But it’s also important to remember that Cuomo’s decision is the end-point of a process that started 6-plus years ago - before frack was a bad word. As recounted in my book, Under the Surface, the moratorium issued by Governor Patterson in July, 2008 had nothing to do with organized fractivists, who did not appear on the scene until after Josh Fox’s movie Gasland two years later. New York’s moratorium was the direct results of landowners posing reasonable questions in public hearings about how the state was prepared to govern shale gas development. Six and half years later, Cuomo’s actions have provided the answer: it wasn't then, and it isn't now.