– OPED: Hit the reset button on fracking, Gov. Cuomo

February 13, 2013

February 13, 2013: the following OPED by former executive director Rob Moore was published in the Syracuse Post Standard.

Hit the Reset Button on Fracking

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced it will let a procedural deadline lapse for finalizing regulations that pertain to fracking and natural gas drilling in New York. By the end of the month, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had needed either to finalize its regulations for issuing fracking permits or reset the clock.

Resetting the clock is the right thing to do. The Governor’s DEC and Department of Health (DOH) deserve credit for taking the time to complete their work and not rushing into a decision

Cuomo can restart the process for adopting regulations at a later date should he so choose. In the meantime, his administration can inject some much-needed transparency into its decision-making — something that has been lacking — and work to restore the public’s faith that our best interests are being taken into account.

But resetting the clock also should mean that no permits will be issued for drilling before regulations are vetted, adopted, and the various studies now under review by DOH and DEC are made public. If there is one major failing in this week’s announcements, it was the governor’s willingness to leave the door open to issuing permits without regulations complete.

When it comes to fracking, the administration has a credibility gap. One wide enough that a large segment of New Yorkers — including half the people in the region where fracking would likely occur — cannot trust the outcome. (PDF)

How did this come to pass?

Partly it is the result of the gas industry that insists fracking is safe and doesn’t pose any risks to groundwater, or that methane leakage is not a problem – all claims that do not pass the laugh test with a public smarter than industry CEOs have given them credit for.

But the credibility gap also results from the Cuomo administration’s own actions over the past two years, which have fed into suspicions that the fix was in all along to allow fracking. Too many questions have been raised and never adequately addressed:

• Why did the DEC initially propose drilling over 1,000 gas wells every year, a scale of drilling that is absolutely unacceptable?

• Why did the state put out a biased economic study, try to sell the public on the ginned-up economic benefits, and minimize the costs that the state and communities would have to bear? It later came to light that the consultants hired by the state to prepare the study were never asked to examine the costs.

• Why has the public health assessment never been made available to the public?

• Why, last November, did the DEC propose draft regulations just two days after the governor said regulations would not be completed anytime soon?

• And why was the governor’s Hydrofracking Advisory Panel shut down over a year ago, keeping its members from asking any additional questions?

As an appointee of the Governor’s Advisory Panel, the suspension of its meetings eroded my level of trust in what the administration may do in the future. The last meeting of that panel was scheduled for January of last year, and was to feature a presentation by local health officials — a presentation highly critical of the state’s evaluation of public health impacts. The meeting was canceled and never rescheduled. As a result, my fellow panelists were never given the opportunity to hear the presentation, or the health officials’ concerns.

Add these and many other troubling instances together and even the most optimistic politician cannot expect the public to buy what the administration had been selling. Rushing to issue a decision at the end of this month would have been a disaster and left the public feeling that the 204,000 public comments submitted just over four weeks ago were being ignored.

The governor has decided to take the right path by hitting the reset button. Put all the steps back in proper order, restore transparency to this process, and ensure that the many significant questions that remain are answered openly and honestly. By doing so, the governor can at least show he is running this state in good faith, and change this into an earnest debate and disagreement over public policy, rather than leaving half of the state feeling like they got drilled.