Whether accurate or not, recent stories of an epiphany by Gov. Cuomo about the dangers of fracking, the influence of his trusted confidant Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and a last-minute decision to cancel gas well permits are heartwarming.
Those who are concerned about the future, however, would be wise to examine what has actually been said — and not said — by the Cuomo administration.
Last month, from beneath a shroud of secrecy surrounding the state’s report on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, a single letter emerged — an announcement by Department of Health Commissioner Nirav Shah that his agency will take a few more weeks to complete its review of health impacts.
Although acknowledging that more work is necessary, Dr. Shah’s two-page letter fell short of committing to the independent transparent Comprehensive Health Impact Assessment called for by a consortium of medical professionals, and it remains to be seen whether he will recommend postponing a decision to issue permits until after the studies identified in his letter are complete.
The most concrete outcome of Dr. Shah’s announcement was that it delayed release of the Supplemental Generic Environment Impact Statement initiated by former Gov. Paterson, thereby causing a procedural clock to run out on woefully inadequate regulations proposed last year by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Disturbingly, this otherwise good news was swiftly clouded by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, who chimed in that he may issue permits for fracking without adopting any new regulations at all — an unabashed gift to industry.
Martens’ threat is not only an affront to the many scientists, medical professionals and residents of New York state who submitted hundreds of thousands of detailed comments on rules proposed by DEC. It is also a direct violation of a promise made by the Cuomo administration that if fracking is permitted, it will only happen pursuant to the “strongest regulations in the country.”
Although the governor has been silent so far on Martens’ outrageous comment, those with an ear to the ground have good reason to suspect a link to rumors of pilot programs or demonstration projects in “sacrifice zone” counties of the Southern Tier — the target of prior trial balloons.
Regardless of where he ultimately stands on fracking, Cuomo ought to put the kibosh on any notion that a “demonstration project” can determine whether solid regulations should be adopted or if the laissez-faire system of weak rules and negotiable permit conditions currently enjoyed by industry is good enough.
The public is certainly intelligent enough to realize that a dog-and-pony show involving a few gas wells drilled under optimal conditions — where shale is deep, nobody lives nearby, and extra precautions are voluntarily taken — cannot begin to simulate a future permitting scenario where many hundreds of wells are drilled and fracked each year under varying circumstances by operators of any caliber.
One does not need a crystal ball to predict that such a scheme, despite its obvious contrivance, would be used by industry to make the erroneous claim that fracking can be done safely with minimal, if any, new regs.
Pennsylvania is already one very large laboratory experiment where residents have become involuntary guinea pigs of a virtually unregulated industry. Rather than rewarding theatrics, a true commitment to science would entail postponing any decision on fracking until after comprehensive studies — including those identified in Dr. Shah’s letter — are complete to analyze the real-world impacts of fracking in states where large-scale operations are already under way.
Don’t repeat mistakes
Moreover, it would be sheer insanity to repeat mistakes of the past in New York and mistakes of the present in Pennsylvania by fracking without strong, codified regulations. Before rumors turn into proposals, Gov. Cuomo should state unequivocally that under no circumstance will he let that happen.
Keith Schue lives in Cherry Valley and is an active member of Sustainable Otsego.