It will probably go down as the biggest decision of the year in New York State – a ban on fracking. Wednesday’s news came the same day casino license recommendations were announced. Supporters of a fracking ban are celebrating the long-awaited decision while opponents say they are disappointed and the Southern Tier, where fracking would have taken place, is doomed.
Citing concerns about health and environmental risks, the Cuomo administration is banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in New York. The state had been under a de facto moratorium for almost six years as health impact studies were delayed. But the end-of-year cabinet meeting in Albany ended years of speculation, lobbying, and protests.
Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, a Hudson Valley resident, has urged the governor to ban fracking, the oil and gas drilling method used in the Marcellus Shale formation in neighboring Pennsylvania.
“I’m so proud of New York for looking at the science, looking at the facts, looking at the potential threats to our environment and making the decision that it just wasn’t worth the risk,” says Merchant.
She and Jon Bowermaster put together a concert protest film in 2012 entitled Dear Governor Cuomo when they thought a decision was imminent.
“And my daughter came up to Albany on several occasions with me and we held up signs and we yelled and we petitioned and we wrote letters and we made the film Dear Governor Cuomo,” Merchant says. “And is just such a valuable lesson for her to have learned at the age of 11 that your voice can be heard.”
Executive Director of the New York State Petroleum Council Karen Moreau believes the wrong voices were heard.
“We’re very disappointed and we’re, frankly, like many people, quite stunned, especially given the fact that we know that DEC and the Cuomo people were calling towns in the Southern Tier that are supportive of drilling, calling local officials to gauge their support in the days leading up to this,” Moreau says. “I think many groups including us and labors and others expected that there would be some sort of a test program so this was very, very surprising to us.”
She says the Council and landowners could put up a fight.
“We are weighing our options, our legal options,” Moreau says. “And I think many of those landowners in the Southern Tier that had their property rights extinguished yesterday by the governor I think are going to consider lawsuits as well.”
Cuomo deferred to Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in making the decision. The two commissioners summarized the findings of their environmental and health reviews, concluding that shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing carried unacceptable risks that have not been sufficiently studied. Martens says the DEC will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, after which he will issue an order prohibiting fracking.
Cuomo repeatedly said the decision would be based on science and not emotion. Again, Natalie Merchant:
“We’re talking about the survival of our children and our grandchildren and generations to come. That’s an emotional issue,” says Merchant. “Of course you have to look at the science, but to take the emotion out of it was just absurd.”
Westchester-based environmental group Riverkeeper has been a longtime proponent of a fracking ban. A tweet from Chief Prosecuting Attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the governor’s ex-brother-in-law, said Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking “demonstrates bold leadership and a rare willingness among U.S. politicians to stand up to the Carbon Lobby.” Kate Hudson is Riverkeeper’s watershed program director.
“The process and the result is really energizing and empowering for all of us on a level that goes beyond the issue,” says Hudson. “And it’s something we haven’t seen a lot of, not just in New York but across the country, that citizens actually speak and government listens and acts based on facts and the concerns of the public.”
The most recent campaign from environmental and anti-fracking groups launched in early December, calling on the governor and his administration to allow NotOneWell. And while Town of New Paltz Supervisor Susan Zimet was on board with the campaign, she also points to a 2011 campaign from the New York Water Rangers, a partnership of environmental and community groups working to protect New York from what they called the dangers of fracking.
“New York’s water needs more heroes. Visit waterrangers.org and tell Governor Cuomo only he has the power to protect New York from the dangers of fracking and he is the hero we’re looking for.”
Zimet says Cuomo has now claimed that hero title. Under Zimet, New Paltz approved three bans on fracking. Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who lost to Cuomo in November on a platform that included allowing fracking, disagrees with the hero title.
“I think it was pretty irresponsible of the governor to say we had the solution which would have transformed the Southern Tier, put so many people back to work with good jobs, but we’re not going to give it to you, so we’ll just start thinking about what we can do in the years ahead as you continue to die as a region and people leave and go on unemployment,” says Astorino. “That’s not the leadership that the Southern Tier or the state needed. That was the opportunity. That was a great opportunity and he passed it by purely for political reasons. And it was like the old headline, ‘Cuomo to Southern Tier: Drop Dead.’”
Astorino and Moreau say the Southern Tier, which sits near the border with fracking state Pennsylvania, took another major hit by not being awarded a casino license.