Cuomo’s Fracking Plan: Politics Trumps Science

Protesters chant at the gate of Schlumberger’s fracking supply depot in Horseheads, NY, Aug. 11. Schooled in the art of being arrested, they waited in vain for trucks hauling fracking sand to try to breach their ranks. (Photo: Shaleshock)

ALBANY, NY—Two months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo confidently promised a rapid roll out of his plan to introduce high-volume fracking to New York State in a few rural upstate counties.

But his trial balloon for the initiative drew intense negative reactions, to which the governor has responded with dead silence. That has left both sides of the natural gas drilling debate wondering whether Cuomo will stick with the plan that all but flopped in its public test or go back to the drawing board.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton

“The political blowback on this has been immense,” said state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a Democrat from Ithaca. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 10 years in the state Assembly and 14 years as legislative chief of staff.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

To move forward as planned, Cuomo, a Democrat, will have to contend with opposition from a strong majority in the Democratically-controlled Assembly, a frustrated state medical community, disillusioned scientists and even a nascent civil disobedience movement.

While Cuomo has drawn boundary lines to protect the New York City watershed from high-volume hydrofracking, he has shown interest in allowing it in poorer upstate regions where pro-fracking sentiment runs high.

On June 13, The New York Times reported that the governor planned to grant the state’s first high-volume fracking permits in five gas-rich counties near the Pennsylvania border. He would allow only about 50 gas wells the first year – and only in communities that expressed support for drilling. Cuomo did not deny that the leaking of the details to The Times was intended to test market his plan. A week later he told an Albany radio station that the state’s three-year preparation phase for fracking was nearly over. He said he would make his decision “shortly.”

Since then the Cuomo plan has drawn tepid support from the industry and coalitions of landowners who have leased property to drillers. But a host of other groups have warned that Cuomo is courting disaster. And even targeted communities have turned into neighbor-against-neighbor battle zones.

The plan has triggered a variety of reactions:

  • A map posted by the Steuben County Landowners Coalition shows towns that have embraced pro-fracking resolutions (green) and those that have opted for a fracking ban or moratorium (red). Many of the communities are fiercely divided, as are towns in the other four target counties: Chemung, Tioga, Broome and Chenango. (Credit: Steuben County Landowners Coalition)

    Landowner coalitions have lobbied local town boards to pass resolutions that declare support for gas drilling, while drilling opponents have argued for local bans or moratoriums on drilling. Both sides have claimed success. In several communities, clashes have erupted between pro-fracking board members with gas leases and anti-fracking residents who complained that they were not being fairly represented. In Wheeler, an Amish community that relies on organic farming is caught in the middle.

  • For the first time, anti-drilling activists have carried out 1960s-style public protests that invite arrests. On August 11, about 150 people gathered in front of a gate at Schlumberger’s fracking supply depot in Horseheads to block trucks delivering fracking sand. The activists had been schooled in the art of being arrested, but no trucks arrived to challenge them.
  • Seventy state legislators, mostly Democrats, released a letter to Cuomo that demanded that he extend the state’s moratorium on fracking until the state Department of Environmental Conservation adequately addresses the health risks of fracking and establishes a responsible plan to dispose of toxic fracking wastewater.
  • Physicians, scientists and political officials have declared that they no longer trust Cuomo’s stated strategy of relying on the DEC to deliver a science-based plan for fracking in New York. They called for the resignation of a key DEC bureaucrat on the grounds that he is a climate change denier who is unfit to oversee fracking regulation.

“This agency has not only colluded with the gas industry in crafting regulations, its preparations to date are wholly inadequate to oversee the roll-out of an industry and practice as inherently dangerous, secretive and accident prone as spatially intensive high-volume fracking,” said one recent open letter to Cuomo.

Louis W. Allstadt

Louis W. Allstadt, a former executive vice president of Mobil Oil Corp., said he signed the letter out of frustration. According to Allstadt, who once supervised Mobil’s oil and gas exploration and production in North America, the DEC has accommodated the drilling industry and pro-drilling landowners coalitions while giving the cold shoulder to those who point out the downsides of fracking.

“There are still serious problems with the technology that may not be fixable,” Allstadt said in a recent interview. “Clearly, the pro-drilling side had access, and the people who had concerns didn’t have access.”

Joining Allstadt in signing the letter were two Cornell University scientists, Robert Howarth and Tony Ingraffea, lead authors of a widely-publicized, peer-reviewed study on fracking’s impact on climate change. Their study that found that the gas drilling process – including leaking wells and pipelines – releases enormous quantities of methane, which is up to 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. So even though natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil, its net impact on climate change may be at least as negative.

Bradley J. Field

The DEC did not include that landmark study in its 1000-plus-page supplementary generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS) for fracking, the state’s fracking guidebook. Furthermore, the supervisor of the SGEIS effort, Bradley J. Field, once signed a petition denying that climate change poses a serious threat. The letter to Cuomo characterized Field as a “climate change contrarian” and said he was “directly responsible for the scientific integrity” of the crucial DEC document.

Although Cuomo has long insisted that his final decision on fracking would be based on “science, facts and information,” he has not made a move to replace Field.

The DEC also came under scrutiny in late June for its cozy relationship with the gas industry after the Environmental Working Group released a series of emails. One set of messages showed that senior DEC officials gave industry insiders a chance to comment on a draft of the SGEIS weeks before it was released to the public. In one email, a gas industry lobbyist urged the agency to water down rules. But environmental groups later acknowledged that the DEC had at times given them sneak peaks at draft regulations as well.

Still, other emails showed that industry representatives took an active, if not lead, role in drafting the state’s starkly pro-driller compulsory integration law in 2005 and in slashing setbacks for drilling operations in 2008.

Significant challenges to the DEC’s fracking guidelines were already gaining momentum by the time Cuomo floated his plan in The Times on June 13.

That same day, Lifton held a press conference to release a letter signed by 70 state legislators calling for an extension of the state’s fracking moratorium until the DEC deals more effectively with health effects and wastewater disposal. Lifton had been lining up signers for weeks.

A host of environmental groups, including Catskill Mountainkeeper and Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, have voiced similar demands for years, and most reaffirmed their positions to Cuomo this summer. Typically, the environmental groups argue that the state cannot continue to neglect to:

  • Conduct a formal study of the health impacts of fracking. While physicians and health care professionals statewide have joined this push, Cuomo declined to fund such a study this year.
  • Develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater produced from fracking. Because of a loophole exempting it from rules covering hazardous waste, wastewater tracking requirements are vague. The lax rules, combined with economic pressures, invite dumping in fields and streams. The state Assembly passed a bill to close the loophole, but Cuomo did not back it and it died in the legislature.
  • Overhaul the DEC by hiring and training sufficient staff to regulate fracking. Cuomo did not include funds for new DEC staff in his most recent state budget.

The Seneca Lake Pure Waters group also urged Cuomo to insist on “a fiscally-neutral set of regulations” that protects state taxpayers from shouldering the costs for road repair and emergency response that should fall on industry.

But Cuomo has not moved on several possible financial fronts: a state severance tax for natural gas, a state natural gas accident fund, and a state mechanism to ensure road repair costs are not shifted to taxpayers.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli

A bill by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli would have created a natural gas accident fund modeled after the state’s petroleum spill fund, but Cuomo did not support it and it, too, did not make it out of legislature. Like the petroleum spill fund, it would have been financed by industry. The gas industry opposed it.

Meanwhile, as groups line up to tell Cuomo exactly how to regulate fracking so that it does not cause environmental, medical or financial harm, thousands of New York residents are wondering why the process has to take so long.

Property owners who have leased land to gas drillers have seen delay after delay, only adding to the frustration that has been building since 2009. Many have organized into politically-active landowner coalitions and lobbied Cuomo and the DEC to simply follow the example of neighboring Pennsylvania and embrace fracking.

“New York has been sitting on its hands, dragging the process out,” said Neil Vitale, a spokesman for the Steuben County Landowners Coalition, which covers the towns of Corning and Bath. “The fracking process is being used all over the world. It’s probably the only way we’re going to harvest fossil fuels.

“Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, thinks states can regulate better than the federal government, and New York’s regulations through the DEC will be some of the best in country. But it’s been politicized. Instead of science, it’s been politics.”

Even so, Allstadt, who retired near Cooperstown after coordinating the Mobil side of the 1999 merger of Mobil and Exxon, questioned whether Cuomo would be well served by relying exclusively on the DEC’s perspective. “We all know the DEC was talking to industry,” he said. “You can see it and hear it in the documents, the terminology, the biases that were there, the lack of effort to find independent sources.”

In the end, Lifton said, the spotlight will inevitably shift away from the DEC’s alleged shortcomings to Cuomo’s final decision. “If he goes forward, it is his responsibility. He will have to own it. This is going to be the governor’s baby.”



Peter Mantius

Peter Mantius

Peter Mantius is a reporter in New York. He covered business, law and politics at The Atlanta Constitution from 1983-2000. He has also served as the editor of business weeklies in Hartford, CT, and Long Island. He is the author of Shell Game (St. Martin’s Press 1995), a nonfiction book on Saddam Hussein’s secret use of a bank office in Atlanta to finance billions of dollars in arms purchases from Western countries before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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  • Josh Harben

    Land owners in NY would be much better served if this were delayed, unless of course they are desperate. Gas prices are at historic lows. There is a glut on the market. If we punt this down the line, they will get much better deals on their leases and much higher royalties. Trial and error elsewhere might also ensure that the process will be safer if it does come to NY.

  • Anonymous

    http://ronwagnersrants.blogspotNatural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty, dangerous, expensive coal and nuclear plants. It is producing the electricity for electric cars. It will directly fuel cars,pickup trucks, vans, buses, long haul trucks, dump trucks, locomotives, aircraft, ships etc. It will keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. Here are over 700 recent links for you:

  • Anonymous

    I live in Broome County NY, in a town right on the PA border. I would like to point out that there are not towns that favor fracking. There are some town boards who have been supportive and there are vociferous landowners who want to make money from leasing, but that does not mean that most of the people in the town want drilling and the industrialization, pollution, and disruption it brings.

    I’d also like to point out that NY landowners who have leased land or those who want to lease can still get permits to drill vertical fracked wells, which, while not environmentaly benign, use much less fracking fluid and generate less wastewater.

    Thank you for your summary of our situation in New York. We are still hoping that Governor Cuomo will put politics and the gas industry spin aside and do the right thing for the health and well-being of the state by maintaining the moratorium or instituting a ban on horizontal drilling and fracking.

    • Mary Sweeney

      I, too, live in Broome County and I thank Joanne Corey for her post.

      In my allegedly “pro-fracking” town, the town board voted for a resolution that can be read to be supportive of fracking. This resolution was written by a landowners’ coalition with a financial interest in drilling. It was passed by the town board with virtually no public input; board members with conflicts of interest did not recuse themselves from the vote. There has since been a fair amount of public opposition to this resolution from town residents, but the town board has so far refused to reopen the issue.

      From what I’ve read and heard about other towns that have passed similar resolutions, this seems to be a typical pattern–the pro-fracking resolutions are passed with little or no public input and town board members who should be recusing themselves are not doing so. This leads me to think that some of these town boards fear that if the public were given a real voice in this issue, that voice would not be pro-fracking and would favor a moratorium if not an outright ban.

      If Gov. Cuomo decides to frack in NY, I think he can expect considerable opposition from the people who have to live with the dangers of fracking. Resolutions passed by town boards should NOT be accepted as evidence that the majority of residents within the town support fracking.

  • David Kauber

    Cuomo is bought off; all the bucks that have been given to him by The Industry, in excess of $150,000, will be multiplied by ten or a hundred times this amount for his political future ambitions. And, Cuomo wants to be The Pres.; he figures it won’t work unless he kisses the ass of The Industry, and Fracks New York State, so that he will get The Industry to support him . This is the Corportate Take Over of our lives which Cuomo is pushing, and we will be fighting this for the rest of our lives, for to turn this country into INDUSTRIAL WASTELANDS. Goodbye America the Beautiful.

  • Stephen I. Mayo

    Hey you know what? Earth to voters of Upstate New York: continue to have your destiny controlled by the environmental lobby, Democrat party machinations and Cuomo’s presidential itinerary and you will continue to languish behind the Metropolitan NYC area, the entire State of Texas and nearly all the rest of the country in economic development and job creation. If the voters (most of whom are victims of the continuing Obamadan recession as underemployed, if not unemployed!) don’t have enough sense to throw over the entire mechanism of regional industrial contraction and strategic defeat, then they deserve the sorry and stale economic pie that they presently “enjoy.” Smart people with mouths to feed and offspring who need real jobs will continue to vote with their feet and depopulate the Southern TIer and Central and Western New York as they have been doing for now fifty or so years. They will choose other communities in the American South, Midwest and Southwest where a healthy balance is being found between positive economic growth and smart, responsible stewardship of the environment. A region cannot depend on bankruptcy-tottering vineyards and fusty beds and breakfasts for its sustenance alone! Face reality.

  • Anonymous

    There is no safe fracking going on anywhere in the world right now. Everywhere it is being done there are irreversible damages to water supplies. If this is the legacy Cuomo wants to leave God help us all. The gas extraction is not being done right and it needs to stop. In PA there is proof all over the state. If people are so greedy to want money over safe water then we are all doomed to a horrible future. Until they can figure out a safer way of extracting it must be stopped. While we have an industry that is adamant on going forward with the problems not being addressed then it’s time for them to be shut down. If there was a country contaminating the American water supply like the gas industry is doing there would be war declared. See here what is happening in PA today as a result of fracking for gas.

  • PApeople

    I wish that PA could just turn off The Natural Gas flowing into to NY state that is being used to heat homes in the winter and run industry. Hug your tree’s or chop them down to heat your homes this winter! Really ??

  • Seafins

    According to substantial scientific documentation, which you have indicated is your needed criteria, fracking is scientifically and economically unsound. It is obvious Cuomo has not seriously perused the documentation of Anthony Ingraffea and Jeanette Barth, along with many others. And the tendency to dismiss for consideration the weight of so much so called “anecdotal” evidence coming from residents in Pennsylvania, such as my old friend and fellow Corning-Painted Post West alumnus Bonnie Knapp Gill of Wyalusing, PA, just south of Chemung County. Here is some of her feedback to me: “All I know, Ann, is that here in PA….NOTHING is the same… THE FARMS ARE GONE… well it’s NOT about the money, dammit….we’re suffering, the farmers are going way downhill even more than before, and it breaks our hearts to see the farmers bow down and cave in to the money. I’m sure a lot of them aren’t so happy to see what these companies have done to our land. Whew…thanks for the vent!! Love you!!! Keep up the good work, don’t let NY go down too!!!”