Governor Cuomo and the Hydrofracking Controversy

Last week, the word leaked out of New York's state capital that Governor Cuomo was about to end the state's ban on hydrofracking. A detailed technical report proposed permitting the practice in some locations and under careful controls. The governor then appointed a 15-member scrupulously balanced advisory group to monitor the regulation of gas extraction. The panel includes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental leader of impeccable credentials and unquestioned integrity.

The governor and his team have once again demonstrated an impressive combination of high principle and political skill. We saw it in the budget battle, the gay marriage victory and now in his energy policy. The same week Governor Cuomo opened the door on hydrofracking, he started to close it at the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

I admit that hydrofracking, mountain top removal and deep sea oil drilling make me nervous. I don't like the risks involved. Still, as I sit here writing these words on my recently recharged laptop, like anyone reading these words on the web, I need the juice. Some day I know we will have a better energy alternative, but at the moment we don't. While I don't think there is any sane and careful way to mine for coal by removing the tops of mountains, there are both safe and unsafe ways of extracting oil from the ocean and gas from the ground. Until we develop safe and cost-effective renewable energy sources, we need to focus our attention on mining fossil fuels as carefully as we can. The high throughput economy that ensures our comfort and quality of life cannot be maintained without risk. But reluctantly accepting risk does not mean we have to accept recklessness or stupidity. While we certainly need energy, we also need to preserve our ecosystems and clean drinking water.

Unlike an earlier proposed state policy, the new one bans hydrofracking anywhere near major water supplies. The watershed surrounding New York City's upstate water system will remain free of these practices. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), under the proposed new state policy:

  • High-volume fracturing would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including a buffer zone;
  • Drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries;
  • Surface drilling would be prohibited on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas;
  • High-volume fracturing will be permitted on privately held lands under rigorous and effective controls; and
  • DEC will issue regulations to codify these recommendations into state law.

There are a number of important issues that must still be addressed if we are to avoid a slow-motion landlocked version of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The first is, what happens to the high-pressure liquid that is injected into the ground, after the gas is released? How do we make sure it is collected and de-toxified before it is released back into the environment? Who pays for the monitoring and inspection of gas extraction processes and the costs of any infrastructure or equipment required to keep the process from destroying ecosystems?

There is little evidence that this or any other industry is prepared to spend the money it would take to do this correctly. It is not even clear that there is a safe and cost-effective way to extract New York State's deposits of natural gas. Nevertheless, while this may be wildly optimistic on my part, I see an opportunity here to determine if there is a way to do this right. It would be terrific if we could learn how to manage such a gas extraction process and demonstrate it to the rest of the nation. If we could identify the technologies and regulatory practices that would reduce the odds of catastrophe, natural gas is a good replacement for oil and coal. While it must be seen as a bridge fuel to a renewable energy economy, it has many economic and environmental advantages over other fossil fuels.

Ending the ban on hydrofracking allows Governor Cuomo to present himself as a pro-business elected official. Creating an advisory committee including prominent environmentalists allows him to demonstrate his commitment to environmentally sustainable development. What is the likely outcome of all of this? It may be that New York State will not see much hydrofracking because a careful and well-regulated extraction process will scare developers away. Why come to New York and put up with all those rules, when you can operate in the Wild West environment of Ohio and Pennsylvania? There is also the small matter of EPA's national study of hydrofracking due out in the fall. We may see some federal policy on this practice before too much longer.

Once again Andrew Cuomo may have found the political sweet spot of this controversy: ending the fracking ban while discouraging its practice. Perhaps Andrew's first name really is "Governor" as many New Yorkers have long suspected. However, in my view, this governor is doing far more than following a politically expedient course of action. He is forthrightly seeking to demonstrate that economic development and environmental protection can and must be integrated. New Yorkers consume a lot of energy, and upstate New York has been in economic decline for decades. Those are issues the governor must address. However, we also need to protect our lands and drinking water from environmental damage. The economic costs of a damaged water supply in New York City would more than offset the economic benefits of natural gas extraction. Moreover, while we can replace natural gas with other forms of energy, there is no substitute for water. We humans are biological creatures requiring water to survive.

Sustainability management requires that we learn how to power our economy while protecting our planet. The hydrofracking issue gives Andrew Cuomo an opportunity to become a sustainability governor. All New Yorkers should want him to meet that challenge.