by Gabe Elsner, Washington, DC
Mounting evidence suggests that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is eschewing science and public concerns in an effort to curry favor with the gas industry. As rumors mount that Cuomo is considering a 2016 presidential run, he may be working to boost his ability to raise campaign funds from the fossil fuel industry.
Recently uncovered internal state documents and other evidence show an aggressive effort by gas industry lobbyists to influence Governor Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to weaken regulation of fracking. Furthermore, a recent report by EarthWorks detailed inadequate DEC oversight of oil and gas drilling in New York. The gas industry's influence is also evident in an analysis of campaign contributions -- the industry spent more than $1.3 million dollars on the campaigns of state legislators and more than $150,000 on Governor Cuomo's electoral campaign. Finally, the gas industry is promoting flawed research, under the banner of academic research, from consultants who work for oil and gas companies to convince the public that fracking is safe.
Influence at the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
The gas industry has deployed an aggressive lobbying campaign directed at public officials, the DEC and Governor Cuomo to influence regulation of fracking, a practice that could seriously threaten the state's drinking water supplies. In July, documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group showed that DEC officials shared key details of proposed natural gas drilling regulations exclusively with gas industry lobbyists. This leak occurred nearly six weeks before the proposal was made public. The early access given to drilling industry lobbyists provided an exclusive opportunity to weaken the regulations before they were made public.
Furthermore, on January 11, 2012, the DEC cancelled a meeting of the advisory panel the day before members were to receive two reports: one from the Conference of Environmental Health Directors and the other from the Association of County Health Officials. These reports were critical of the department's ability to protect public health from the threats posed by fracking. According to the report prepared by the state Conference of Environmental Health Directors, the "program proposed by the (DEC) is inadequate to protect public health and to detect and remediate contamination of drinking water aquifers." The advisory board has yet to be reconvened as DEC goes through its final review of fracking.
Finally, the DEC hired Ecology and Environment, Inc., a firm that represents oil and gas companies, rather than hiring a neutral party without conflicts of interest to study the impact of fracking in the state of New York.
A recent report by EarthWorks details the DEC's failure to regulate the oil and gas industry, as well as a pattern of ineffective punishments to deter future violations.
More than 75 percent of existing oil and gas wells currently operate without routine inspections by regulators. The report highlights that the DEC cannot effectively regulate the limited drilling now happening in the state, let alone the huge influx that would result if fracking is approved.
In addition, the report shows that existing fines for lawbreakers are ineffective at deterring future offense because the fines are too low. In 2006 and 2007, the DEC only fined violators of oil and gas regulations in 22 enforcement cases, collecting on average less than $2,000 per enforcement case. In other states, such as Pennsylvania, the fines carry far more weight in deterring future violations due to the cost -- violations in Pennsylvania for fracking wells can cost the operator $75,000 plus $5,000 per day the violation continues.
If fracking were approved in New York, it would lead to a huge expansion of the oil and gas industry throughout the state. As this report details, without effective regulation fracking could devastate clean air and water that communities rely on every day.
Campaign Contributions to State Officials
The gas industry's influence reaches far beyond the DEC, into the offices of elected officials.
Between January 2007 and October 2011, the natural gas industry made 2,349 campaign contributions, totaling $1.34 million to state and local representatives. Governor Cuomo received $153,816.06 from companies ranging from Constellation Energy to Consolidated Edison while running for governor in 2010.
And, according to the New York Times, "companies that drill for natural gas have spent more than $3.2 million lobbying state government [since the beginning of 2010 through November 2011], according to a review of public records."
Pushing Biased, Pro-Industry Research Through State Universities
The gas industry is also working to promote studies and reports that use faulty data produced by consultants who work for the industry in order to convince New Yorkers that fracking is safe.
A recent report from the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) regarding the effectiveness of state regulations on hydraulic fracturing has come under intense scrutiny from watchdog groups, university professors and students. The report claimed that environmental regulations in Pennsylvania dramatically decreased the number of environmental violations per well caused by fracking. But Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog organization, pointed to data showing that the rate of violations had actually increased.
In addition, entire passages were lifted from a previous report written by the lead authors, Timothy J. Considine and Robert W. Watson, for the fossil fuel-funded Manhattan Institute. Mr. Considine has also received funding from two other fossil fuel advocacy groups, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas industry trade group, and the American Petroleum Institute. Mr. Considine failed to disclose in the report that he is the principal for Natural Resource Economics, a gas industry consulting firm. There was no disclosure of this information in either the report or in the separate biography sheet the University at Buffalo issued for three of its authors.
Mr. Considine's failure to disclose his ties to the oil and gas industry is not new. After omitting his connection to the industry in 2009 and 2010 reports for Penn State University, the university retracted the original version of the report and noted there was a "clear error" made.
Some of the largest gas companies -- Chesapeake Energy, Shell, Chief Oil and Gas, Seneca Resources, EQT, and Thermoscientific -- are funding another institute at SUNY Fredonia (a New York public university). When attention was drawn to the funders, the university took down the institute's website. However, it is unclear whether the institute still exists.
Comprehensive Campaign to Frack New York
The oil and gas industry is waging a comprehensive campaign to frack New York. From influence and access inside the DEC, to the enormous power of campaign contributions to New York's elected officials, the gas industry is working every channel to ensure fracking is allowed in the state.
This effort stands in stark contrast to the sizable grassroots effort in New York against fracking. The DEC received more than 61,000 public comments during the last comment period (beating the previous record of 800 comments); in early May a broad coalition of grassroots organizations delivered over 200,000 petitions from citizens calling on the governor to ban fracking; and 244 scientists and doctors signed a letter urging Governor Cuomo to consider the serious health impacts that fracking would likely have on residents of the state.
In the coming days, weeks or months, Governor Cuomo will make a decision. Will he listen to the lobbyists and gas industry consultants? Or, will he listen to the citizens of New York on this critical issue?