Since his first day in office, Governor Andrew Cuomo has touted his goal of open and transparent leadership. His inaugural act, Executive Order No. 1, even proclaimed, "It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the government perform its business in an open and public manner." But in the time since that Order brought down the concrete barriers that had prevented access to the state Capitol, Cuomo has erected a much more damaging barricade to public access on a critical issue: fracking.
Less than a year later, Governor Cuomo's 18-member fracking advisory panel sits in secret. It's during closed door sessions that essential decisions about the state's future are being negotiated by a handful of people, many of them strongly self-interested and industry-biased. And the vast majority of New York's residents that will bear the harmful brunt of that decision-making will never know what environmental and community health sacrifices are being offered in the false name of economic prosperity and industry profit. We're looking at shades of Dick Cheney's energy policy all over again, this time under a Democratic state administration that ironically proclaimed open government a top priority a short ten months ago.
Cheney's twisted legacy in the fracking arena unfortunately extends beyond the secrecy approach adopted by Cuomo's fracking panel; the ex-Vice President also led the fight to make fracking exempt from key protections in federal environmental and public health laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, and made sure that the industry didn't need to disclose its long list of cancerous poisons it pumps into the earth every day of its irresponsible gas extraction activities. Fracking is one of the most critical issues facing New York, and the oil and gas industry's history of operating in the dark is now being replicated by the Cuomo administration.
Despite the secrecy, it's clear that Cuomo's fracking panel exists solely to provide cover for the Governor when, not if, he announces that New York is opening the floodgates to fracking. Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner, Joseph Martens, who refused to place a single anti-fracking grassroots activist on the panel despite appointing industry representatives, has already announced that "high-volume hydrofracking can be undertaken safely." The panel's stated goals are not to assess if fracking might do more harm to our state than good, but rather to provide input on proper oversight and revenue streams based on DEC reports, which have not been released to the public.
Last year, the New York State legislature did the right thing when it passed a temporary moratorium on fracking. But fracking could commence when the final DEC environmental impact study is issued, likely early next year. The draft study, which Cuomo is expected to approve, recommends banning fracking in New York City's watershed while opening up large parts of the rest of the state to fracking. Trading away the health and safety of upstate New Yorkers is not leadership; it's a political calculation designed to appease the heavily Democratic voting block of Cuomo's urban base, even though residents of New York City may not be aware that they, too, would be affected by the air pollution, risks to food, and continued threats to water that fracking would bring.
There are signs that Cuomo is looking to trade elsewhere in order to get fracking up and running. In his recently launched online "town hall" chat website, Cuomo stated, "There is no doubt that we need replacement power if we are to close Indian Point [nuclear power plant]." Is he laying the groundwork for the day when he tells New Yorkers that they've got a choice between poisoned drinking water and nuclear meltdown, and he's picking the former?
Governor Cuomo, the growing movement against fracking will not accept this tired "two bad choices" trick.
There is, of course, a third choice. Ban fracking, as the New Jersey legislature did before its own governor vetoed the ban last summer. If the industry cannot extract natural gas without poisoning our water, without exemptions from federal water protections, and without full, public disclosure of the toxins being injected into our drinking water systems, then they have no right to reap immense profits off the compromised health and safety of our communities. Anything less is a betrayal.