New York State banned the natural gas retrieval procedure known as High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing during a televised cabinet meeting presided over by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday. The decision cited a variety of concerns raised by the state Department of Health and the fact that, “In New York State we’re protective of our natural resources,” as NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens put it.
As the decision was still being discussed, New York Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox sent out a statement noting that, “Andrew Cuomo has given into the radical environmental Luddites in his own party to leave New York as the only one of the 35 states with extractable natural gas to be missing out on the hydro-fracking boom.” He and others posting comments on the governor’s website, where the cabinet meeting was livestreamed from 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., complained that the new ban ignored economically-challenged communities in the state’s Southern Tier and would lead to “wealth of new lawsuits.”
Locally, the decision and the governor came in for high praise. “With climate change likely to be THE issue of our time, we applaud Governor Cuomo for being a true leader,” said Catskill Mountainkeeper. “New York State can show the nation what is possible. Together we can lead a just transition to an economy based on efficiency and clean, renewable energy.”
Ulster County Executive Mike Hein’s statement was also laudatory. “I want to commend Gov. Cuomo for putting the health and safety of the people of New York as the highest priority. The decision to ban fracking is simply the right thing to do.”
The decision was based on a long-awaited health study presented by Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s interim health commissioner. The noted doctor and public health official, who developed the nation’s Medical Reserve Corps and served as Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization for years, talked about the months-long departmental review of fracking as having identified “significant public health risks.” He also noted that the study proved inconclusive in regards to any petroleum industry-proposed mitigation “over the long term.”
After talking about the methodology in terms similar to what was known of second hand smoke before studies were proved conclusive, Zucker asked, “Would we be safe? After looking at the plethora of reports my answer is no…You can raise productivity and living standards but would this allow us to live longer and better? We cannot afford to [make a] mistake.”
The health official completed his statement by noting how he wouldn’t want his own children living anywhere near a fracking site, or eating vegetables grown in an area close to one.
The health department decision, Zucker added, came after 4,500 hours of study.
The state has had a moratorium on the controversial gas retrieval method since 2008, and initiated the health review outlined Wednesday back in 2012.
Home rule bans factored in
Following Zucker’s presentation, Martens — seated next to him in the state capital — said that a “lack of proof regarding the proposed mitigation measures is enough” for his decision. Yet he then added that a host of home rule bans against fracking, the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight, and proposed regulations to protect setbacks and water supplies would limit any economic benefits the process could bring to the state, also affecting his decision.
“The two sides of the debate would end up battling this out in front of town boards, become a very severe local issue,” he said. “We are a water rich state; in New York State we’re protective of our natural resources.”
Martens concluded by stating that based on his department’s and the health department’s findings, he was recommending a ban. Governor Cuomo added that he would defer to Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker in making the decision.
“This decision seems to be self-executing between you two people. I love that…I don’t think I have a role here,” the Governor noted, adding that, “very few people love the idea of fracking. What we need to do now is look at other things we can do to generate wealth as an alternative to it.”
When questions then arose about those who would not be happy with the anti-fracking decision, Cuomo noted how “there’ll be a ton of lawsuits, I’m sure,” and concluded, again, that “there is simply a lot of evidence on the table that this couldn’t be done safely.”
Greg Biryla, director of development for Unshackle Upstate and Lou Santoni, president and CEO of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce disagreed. “Today’s announcement banning natural gas development across Upstate New York is a tremendous blow to the Upstate economy,” their statement read. “This lost opportunity would’ve generated millions in state and local revenues and tens of thousands of jobs across Southern Tier and other Upstate areas. While other states across the nation continue to realize the numerous economic benefits from responsible natural gas development, New York State has yielded to a well-funded, fear-based propaganda campaign.”
Asked if he’d reconsider his findings given new information, Zucker also said, “No. This is what I found is best for our state.” He and Martens added that other states may not have gotten their decisions right.
“It’s too easy to always question the process when you don’t agree with the outcome,” added the Governor.