To environmentalists, hearing political leaders call for investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency is music to the ears. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for both of these things in the text of his State of the State address.
But right now, environmentalists are more interested in seeing what the governor decides on the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground, sometimes as much as 10,000 feet deep, to break apart shale and release natural gas, which flows up the well. Supporters say the process is safe and will help the state tap into an important energy resource, while opponents say it is dangerous and poses a threat to drinking water.
Proponents of hydraulic fracturing are eager to tap into the Marcellus Shale gas field, part of which extends into the state’s Southern Tier. Environmentalists such as Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group, would like to see the governor ban hydraulic fracturing.
“The issue of Marcellus is really the number one issue that’s going to be facing the state in 2012,” Haight said. “There’s just such a groundswell of concern about this issue. The more people learn about drilling and the potential risks, the more opposed they are to it.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is taking public comment on its environmental review and proposed regulations for gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing until Wednesday. The issuing of permits for new gas wells has been on hold since 2008.
Cuomo’s speech did not voice an opinion on fracking. The text of the speech said that the DEC “is reviewing all comments and expects the final environmental impact study and the advisory panel’s recommendations to be released in 2012, before any decisions are made on how to proceed.”
The neutrality of the governor’s tone was an encouraging sign for environmentalists.
“We take it as a sign that the governor’s enthusiasm for fracking is fading,” said Brian Smith, program and communications director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental organization with offices in New York and Connecticut. “He expressed no desire to move forward with the process.”
Katherine Nadeau, the water and natural resources program director for the Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York, agreed. “[Cuomo] is saying that the decision is not yet made, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “We’re hopeful. We want to work with the governor on this. He’s got the opportunity to be a hero to millions of New Yorkers.”
In the past, Cuomo has said that hydraulic fracturing should be allowed if the DEC review establishes that it can be done safely.
Haight said that DEC is so understaffed it cannot enforce existing environmental laws, and questioned whether the agency would actually be able to enforce hydraulic fracturing regulations, if they were approved. “I’m not sure DEC could ensure that the drilling is done safely, if that’s even possible,” she said.
Though pollution of drinking water is the primary concern, others have emerged.
Last winter, a seismologist suggested that a well used in northeast Ohio to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling likely caused a series of 11 minor earthquakes; wastewater wells associated with hydraulic fracturing are also suspected in quakes in Arkansas, Colorado and Oklahoma.
“We can see what’s going on in other states,” Haight said.
Cuomo’s speech did contain initiatives for environmentalists to rally behind, although they said they were hoping for more details.
The governor also talked about the need to invest in solar power, and proposed a new program, the NY-Sun Initiative, which he said would double the state’s photovoltaic capacity by 2013. Photovoltaics is a method of using solar cells to convert sunlight into energy.
“It’s great that the governor is talking about solar power and clean energy,” said Ross Gould, air and energy program director for Environmental Advocates. “I’d love to see more details. It’s hard to know how these programs are going to play out, but it’s great that he recognizes the need to expand solar energy. That’s an emission-free energy source. New York has made a lot of progress, but more could be made.”
In his written remarks, Cuomo described investing in solar power as good for the environment and business.
“We will continue to establish New York’s technology leadership in this important emerging market while balancing investments in other renewable resources and protecting the taxpayer,” he said. “This approach will create jobs, expand solar power and protect ratepayers — a win, win, win.”
“The solar initiative is a critical part of the whole vision,” Haight said. “We need to be moving away from fossil fuels, and solar is an area we need to dramatically increase.”
“We’re encouraged that he mentioned solar,” he said. “We feel the policies in the state have failed to push solar forward. Right now, that potential is going unrealized.”
He said he would also like to see the state do more to promote the development of offshore wind power downstate and around the Great Lakes.
“There’s tremendous potential in offshore wind,” he said. “The environmental community is calling out to Cuomo for some leadership on this.”
Gould said he would have liked to see the governor talk more about climate change.
The governor also talked about the need to make it easier for people to retrofit their homes with energy-efficient technology.
Thanks to an agreement reached between the state and the utility companies, people will now be able to finance energy efficiency upgrades by borrowing the money from a utility and paying the loan back over time via a line item on their monthly bill.
The state will also develop a master plan for energy efficiency measures in state buildings.
“We’re pleased to see that Cuomo wants to start leading by example,” Smith said.
Another proposal called on the state to develop an “energy highway” that would send excess fossil-fuel and wind energy generated in upstate and western New York downstate.
Cuomo said the state will issue requests for proposals to implement a master plan to power the state for the next half-century, and that private companies will finance and build $2 billion in infrastructure.
Many of Cuomo’s remarks on the environment were contained in the written text of his speech, but were not part of his verbal address on Wednesday.
“I would have liked to see it be part of the verbal address,” Haight said.