11/28/2011 08:21 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

Can Andrew Cuomo Meet the Leadership Challenge of Hydrofracking Policy?

Hydrofracking for gas, like deep sea oil drilling, is both a complicated and potentially dangerous practice that provides more and more of the fuel we need for daily life. The increased use of these technologies tells us that fossil fuels are getting harder to find and more difficult to extract from the earth. This will continue until we build a fossil fuel-free economy. Unfortunately we do not yet have the technology we need to create a renewable energy economy. Someday we will. The question is how fast can we get there, and how much of the planet's ecosystem will remain intact when we do?

Here in New York State the fracking controversy is picking up steam. In the New York Times last week, Thomas Kaplan wrote that:

"Energy companies have been pouring millions of dollars into television advertising, lobbying and campaign contributions as the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo enters the final phase of deciding when and where to allow a controversial form of natural gas extraction that is opposed by environmental groups. Companies that drill for natural gas have spent more than $3.2 million lobbying state government since the beginning of last year, according to a review of public records. The broader natural gas industry has been giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign accounts of lawmakers and the governor. And national energy companies are advertising heavily in an effort to convince the public that the extraction method, commonly known as hydrofracking, is safe and economically beneficial."

This disheartening, but sadly predictable discussion should focus on the technical issues of engineering and ecology, but has instead degenerated into a propaganda war. Environmentalists want to ban fracking and gas companies want to pretend that fracking presents no risk. While I would rather ban hydrofracking than allow it without regulation, neither policy solves the problem. The problem is that we need the energy. One way or the other we are going to generate electricity and run our furnaces. The main energy alternatives available in sufficient quantity are coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. Natural gas produces less air pollution than coal and oil. Nuclear has high capital costs, waste problems and other well-known risks. There is no risk-free way to power our economy. Slowing down energy consumption is economically and politically infeasible. Energy use in China, India and Africa will continue to grow and must be accommodated.

Therefore, we need a real discussion about the transition to a fossil fuel-free economy. Government must manage this transition. The private market has a key role to play, but it can't get there alone. There are two key initiatives that must be at the heart of this transition: 1. The development of more cost-effective solar cells, batteries and smart-grids supporting distributed generation of electricity. 2. Sound policy about transition fuels, energy efficiency standards and regulatory controls to minimize the environmental impact of this transition.

We need to chart an energy future and we can't do that without an active and intelligent government. In this era of anti-government bias it's hard to imagine such a government. Nevertheless, any solution to the energy issue will require a strong role by a competent government.

How does this apply to fracking in New York? We need to start with a state energy plan that encourages the use of solar power. We then need to commission a detailed, state-of-the-art analysis of best practices on gas extraction. This study must be peer-reviewed by independent scientists. New York would then adopt gas extraction rules based on these best practices. Of course, rules alone are insufficient. New York then needs to build an independent and powerful regulatory body to ensure that gas extraction and all energy use is environmentally sound. This is a function that could be added to the state's Public Service Commission or could be assigned to a new agency.

If companies want to drill in New York, they have to do it correctly. If there is no safe way to drill, or if a particular ecosystem is too fragile or too important to risk damage, then gas extraction would be prohibited in that location. Inspections, audits and strong enforcement will reduce the odds that the environment will be damaged by gas mining or any other energy development or use. The costs of this regulation and of state-funded solar programs would be paid by a surcharge on extracted natural gas.

New Yorkers, like all Americans, use a great deal of energy. We need to become more efficient in our use of energy. We need to get off of fossil fuels. But we also must acknowledge that those that consume fossil-fuels have some responsibility for producing them as well. That does not mean that we have to sacrifice our ecosystems and water supply to quench our thirst for energy. Energy is vital to our modern lifestyle, but water, air and food are vital to life itself. Protecting our air, water and land is non-optional public policy. We will not survive on a poisoned planet. If we are going to extract natural gas from the planet, we need to do it in a careful, well-managed way.

This is a difficult and complicated issue. Industry assurances about safety are not credible. However, opposition to fracking based on the philosophy of environmental protection at all costs, eliminates the opportunity for a meaningful conversation on methods of safely extracting natural gas from the ground. In the end it comes down to a matter of trust. The boatload of cash spent by industry when it lobbies Albany provides an indication of the amount of money that these companies hope to make mining New York's gas. Careful regulation and oversight will reduce those profits, and probably drive gas drillers into less regulated states. All of this industry cash floating around makes me nervous and is a reason to enter a policy dialogue with great care.

A competent and trustworthy state government could develop reasonable but rigorous regulations, but few people believe we have such a government. It is up to the Cuomo administration to prove the skeptics wrong. The formulation and implementation of an environmentally sustainable state energy policy gives Governor Cuomo and his administration an opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose and make good on their rhetoric. Andrew Cuomo is capable of providing strong leadership; let's hope he decides to meet this challenge.