Why are New York’s environmentalists angry? Just ask them what happened this past Memorial Day Weekend.
That’s when the state legislature voted to slash the Environmental Protection Fund’s budget by 37 percent, as part of an emergency deal that was designed to keep state parks open. Environmental groups were not happy with the compromise, and they have vowed to make their voices heard as the upcoming state elections approach.
“The Legislature dropped the ball on the Environmental Protection Fund, and that was something that resonated with us. I’ve never seen New York’s environmental community as galvanized as we are right now,” said Dan Hendrick, communications director for the New York League of Conservation Voters.
Hendrick’s group and others like it have vowed to channel their anger into action. They have been watching the candidates running in state races for signs of their commitment to clean energy and the environment. While some groups are keeping an eye on state Senate races—specifically open-seat races—the majority are focusing on the attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns.
David Gahl, policy director for Environmental Advocates of New York, cited environmental funding—or the lack thereof—as one of the major issues on the table. The state’s principal environmental regulator, the Department of Environmental Conservation, currently employs 700 fewer staff members than it did 20 years ago. As a result, Gahl said, the DEC is failing to fulfill its responsibilities.
“Based on these cuts, the agency is responding to only 150 oil spills per year, rather than the average of 350 cases,” said Gahl. “Another issue is the inspection of underground storage tanks—there are nearly 30,000, and the DEC inspects only 11 percent of them. Soon they’ll have more cuts and then they’ll inspect even fewer. What’s the new governor going to do about that?”
Many activists pointed out that they would like to hear more about climate change from the candidates running for governor, citing the lack of statewide policy designed to combat global warming and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
“Do they support the regional greenhouse gas initiative? Where do they stand on that and other programs? It’s one of the biggest problems of our time, and the state could do a lot to help,” said Gahl.
Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said she wanted to see candidates make a strong commitment to the use of clean energy.
“Anyone running for state office needs to make an agreement to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energy,” she said.
Hendrick, meanwhile, viewed the creation of green jobs as paramount.
“The challenge is framing sustainability as a 21st-century issue for New York,” he said. “Everything is seen through an economic lens these days, and so we’re focusing on creating green jobs.”
Perhaps the issue that has attracted the most publicity in recent months is natural gas exploration, specifically hydrofracking, which some activists say is associated with numerous harmful effects that impact both humans and the environment.
In early August, the Senate passed a one-year moratorium on natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the site of the majority of the state’s gas reserves. The Assembly is expected to follow shortly with similar legislation. Gov. David Paterson must then sign off on the bill.
Environmentalists would have preferred the passage of the legislation, which calls for a moratorium on hydrofracking for 120 days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes its study of the effects of the process. Yet even they agreed that some action was better than no action.
“The one-year moratorium is a good thing because at the very least it will punt the issue to the next administration,” said Jay Simpson, a senior attorney for Riverkeeper who focuses on watershed issues. “It is Riverkeeper’s belief that this administration sees the dollar signs associated with hydraulic fracturing. We view the next administration as more concerned about protecting the environment from its negative impacts,” he said, referring to one led by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who he, like many, believes will be elected governor.
Yet Simpson pointed out that while Cuomo has made general statements about hydrofracking, he has failed to explain, in detail, how he plans to address the issue. He noted that even Rick Lazio has expressed his opposition to the procedure.
The energy policy book that Cuomo released last week, entitled “Power NY,” called for gas drilling to be done “in a way that is consistent with environmental concerns,” but it did not go into detail and it did not contain the term “hydraulic fracturing.”
“This is the biggest environmental issue in New York State, and it poses the biggest threat by far,” Simpson said. “It’s really surprising that Cuomo hasn’t released a stronger statement.”
Gas industry representatives have sought to downplay the threat of hydraulic fracturing. Jim Smith, a spokesperson for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, noted that natural gas exploration has occurred in New York for over 100 years, often with hydrofracking.
“Realistically, I think more elected officials would favor natural gas exploration if they understood it,” he said. “But if they favor it, they’re not saying so, because many of their constituents are stating their opposition to it. To come out in favor of it would be political suicide.”
Also likely to attract attention this election cycle is Indian Point, the controversial nuclear power plant on the east bank of the Hudson River, near Peekskill. Environmentalists have long advocated for the plant’s closure, citing its potential health risks.
At issue is the question of whether or not to renew the plant’s license to operate. Cuomo is currently involved in legal proceedings challenging the license renewal. Many believe that the state will deny the plant a license and Indian Point will be forced to close. No one, however, has yet come up with a generally accepted plan for making up the energy production that would be lost by shutting down the reactors, or the increase in power rates this would likely cause.
Certain issues that were important during recent election cycles have attracted less attention this year. Legislation known as Article X, which would have re-established a siting and permitting process for energy facilities in the state, overriding “home rule” authority, has become less controversial due to a decrease in energy use statewide.