The big news last week was the decision by the Cuomo Administration to prohibit the controversial high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is a technology that allows for drilling for oil and gas reserves that had been inaccessible until the development of this new technology. Not surprisingly, large, industrial scale oil and gas drilling has serious environmental and public health implications.
The Cuomo Administration’s health department was charged with reviewing the risks of fracking. The Health Department’s report last week provided the ammunition for the Cuomo Administration to make its decision.
The Health Department’s report cited potential environmental impacts and health hazards as reasons for the ban. The Department’s research reviewed a large number of studies and highlighted the following concerns:
The report cited the dangers from the emission of methane gas from fracking identifying links to asthma and other breathing issues. It reviewed a study that found that nearly 40 percent of residents in Pennsylvania who lived within one kilometer of a fracking site developed upper-respiratory problems compared with 18 percent of those who lived more than two kilometers away.
The report cited dangers posed to drinking water supplies. It cited studies in Ohio and Oklahoma that found that fracking can trigger earthquakes. The report also identified the impact fracking can have on climate change.
The Health Commissioner then finished his presentation with the statement, "I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking? The answer is no." The Commissioner of Environmental Conservation then stated that he would close the current regulatory process on fracking by instituting a prohibition on fracking.
As a result, New York is the first state with appreciable shale gas reserves to say no to fracking. Beyond the obvious impact on the state’s environment and the health of its citizens, the decision adds new clarities:
It is clear that the governor is a political “big game hunter.” New York’s rejection is a huge national environmental action. Governor Cuomo adds this to an impressive list of policy achievements: New York’s legislative approval of marriage equality, its tough gun control law, and now its ban on fracking. The governor has achieved a lot in his first term.
It is also clear that New York’s move will jolt the national fracking marketplace. In a nation in which big money often trumps the public’s interest, New York blocked a policy advanced by the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry is the probably most profitable in world history. Yet, a grassroots movement of concerned citizens, public health advocates and environmentalists were able to stop the oil and gas industry. That success breathed new life into similar efforts all across the nation.
Lastly, it is clear that the laws designed to bolster local governments’ ethics are extraordinarily weak.
A report by the New York Public Interest Research Group identified many weaknesses in local government ethics laws. Under New York State law, public officials working in municipalities with populations of less than 50,000 are exempt from key ethics standards required of other public officials. Most notably, these officials are not required to file disclosures on their financial assets, thus making it virtually impossible for the public to know if possible conflicts exist. Moreover, lobbying disclosure requirements are not required when an interest group is spending money to influence local governments with populations of less than 50,000.
And state policymakers are relying on local officials when deciding important issues. For example, in determining where to site casinos, developers had to prove local governmental support. In the battle over fracking, the courts had ruled that municipalities could determine whether to allow or prohibit gas drilling.
Thus when it comes to policymaking, big monied interests can work to influence local governments in a much more permissive ethical environment than those found in Albany.
As Governor Cuomo moves beyond his historic fracking decision, he should focus on the weaknesses in ethic laws governing the actions of local officials. The governor should advance a plan to ensure that residents can have confidence that municipal decision-makers are free from conflicts of interest, operate in an open manner, and that interest groups are required to publicly disclose their attempts to influence local officials.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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