After Lengthy Review, State Moves To Ban Hydrofracking

New York will move to ban high-volume hydrofracking after a Department of Health review could not determine the controversial natural gas drilling process was safe.

“Would I live in a community with (fracking) based on the facts that I have now? Would I let my child play in a school field nearby? After looking at the plethora of reports behind me … my answer is no,” Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker told Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his cabinet.

The long-awaited announcement, given on Wednesday at meeting of Cuomo’s cabinet, is a significant victory for the environmental movement that has sprung up around the issue and will almost certainly be challenged in court by the energy industry.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said as a result of the Department of Health’s determination, a formal and “legally binding” ban on the process will be signed next year following a formal regulatory review process.

Cuomo predicted the move will result in a “ton of lawsuits” but indicated he was confident the state is on firm legal footing in putting the fracking ban in place.

In assessing whether hydrofracking would be viable in the state’s Southern Tier, the governor’s top environmental and health officials pointed to a June 2014 Court of Appeals ruling that upheld local bans on hydrofracking. With restriction already recommended by the state on hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale region, Martens said only 37 percent of the area would be viable for natural gas development.

At the same time, low natural gas prices have made hydrofracking not as economically appealing as once thought, Martens said.

Cuomo insisted that he had no role in the decision to ban hydrofracking, one that critics of the move will doubt given the governor’s reputation for being hands on.

Indeed, supporters of hydrofracking and critics of the governor pounced on the news.

“This study was a political charade from the start. Andrew Cuomo has given into the radical environmental Luddites in his own party to leave New York as the only one of the 35 states with extractable natural gas to be missing out on the hydro-fracking boom,” said state Republican Chairman Ed Cox.

But environmental advocates and hydrofracking opponents praised the development and took some credit for applying pressure on state officials.

“New York is worth more than the gas under our feet,” Working Families Party Director Bill Lipton. “Six years ago, the gas drillers told us hydrofracking was an inevitability. We believed in a better future for our state. Every New Yorker who spoke up, called their lawmakers, boarded a bus to Albany, signed a petition or put a sign in their yard deserves enormous credit. Hats off to the New Yorkers Against Fracking Coalition. When the people are united, there is no force that can stop us.”

Cuomo, however, said the outside forces, which he said was more “emotion charged” on the fracking issue than same-sex marriage and gun control, didn’t play a role in the decision to ban fracking.

“We didn’t rush anything,” Cuomo said. “We took our time.”

And Cuomo also said the decision wasn’t made based on politics, even as it was not made until after his re-election last month over Republican Rob Astorino, who campaigned in support of hydrofracking.

“It can’t be political because it came out after the elections,” Cuomo said.

Nevertheless, Cuomo acknowledged that the Southern Tier, which runs along the state’s border with northern Pennsylvania is in need of an economic boost.

Cuomo said that while the area is in line to receive a potential casino resort in today’s announcement, that is unlikely to help stimulate the needed job growth in the region proponents of hydrofracking say allowing the process would have brought.

“That is a legitimate question,” Cuomo said when asked about alternative economic development models for the Southern Tier. “They need the jobs.”

What Role Will Dryden Decision Play In Cuomo’s Fracking Decision?

A long-awaited update on whether the state will allow high-volume hydrofracking is expected this morning at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cabinet meeting, due to start at around 11:15.

One question surrounding Cuomo’s decision on the controversial natural gas extraction process is how it will square with a state Court of Appeals ruling from this June.

In that case, the state’s high court ruled local zoning measures can block hydrofracking operations — a move that was celebrated by environmental advocates and knocked by the energy industry for making any natural gas drilling operations all the more complicated.

Cuomo could potentially show deference to local governments when it comes to zoning, potentially muddying the waters with whatever the state allows to move forward.

Meanwhile — perhaps coincidentally — the state Department of Environmental Conservation in recent days conducted classes with engineers on “classical gas/oil fracking air emissions” with refresher courses on the state’s natural gas development history and regulatory guidelines for air emissions.

The Economic Fate Of Upstate Could Be Decided Today

From the Morning Memo:

The direction of where the upstate economy will be headed for the next decade could be decided this week, as the state is expected to make major decisions on both where casino resorts will be built and whether to go ahead with hydrofracking, a controversial natural gas extraction process.

The state’s Gaming Facility Location Board will meet in Albany this afternoon with the expectation that it will offer its recommendation of which projects should receive up for licenses to build casino resorts. Up to four licenses are available in three regions of the state: the Capital District, the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes and the Catskills/Hudson Valley.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health is expected to release its findings on the safety of hydrofracking, the method of extracting natural gas that has created economic booms in other parts of the country, but has also sparked a massive environmental movement. Likewise, a long-sought decision on whether the state should begin granting permits for hydrofracking is also expected when this review is complete.

News on the tracking front could come today as the governor convenes his final cabinet meeting at 11:15 this morning.

What’s fascinating is how — publicly at least — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has kept both hydrofracking and casino siting at arm’s length as both decisions, either way, are expected to spark litigation.

Cuomo did push hard for the constitutional amendment to expand casino gaming beyond Indian-run facilities and then negotiated the enabling legislation that set the ground rules for commercial development, namely keeping the casinos north of New York City in the first phase.

But once that measure passed, Cuomo has insisted he’s leaving the casino siting up to facility board members, several of whom are close allies of his, including former city Comptroller Bill Thompson, Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz, former advisor Paul Francis, attorney Dennis Glazer (whose wife, Westchester DA Janet DiFiore, was Cuomo’s appointee to the state ethics panel JCOPE) and Kevin Law, the president of the Long Island Association who at one point was floated as a potential running mate for the governor.

As much as gaming regulators have sought to make the casino siting decision as open as possible, hydrofracking, meanwhile, has been one of the more opaque decision-making processes, frustrating both environmental advocates as well as the energy industry for the state of limbo and the decided lack of transparency in what the DOH is reviewing in making its determination.

Unlike so many policy areas, the hydrofracking decision has seemingly handcuffed Cuomo.

Having missed multiple deadlines to issue regulations, the process was thrown to the Department of Health to review the tracking impact. It’s important to note that the administration made a point of having Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens make that request of then-Health Commissioner Nirav Shah.

Pockets of upstate New York have been left in the economic doldrums for decades, including the Southern Tier and the Hudson Valley.

The governor has adopted Buffalo and western New York as a cause to fight for, pumping millions of dollars of economic development funding into the area.

The Capital Region, too, has benefited from the state’s attention in recent years, beginning with the Pataki administration, as the growth of the high-tech sector took shape.

Whatever decisions are made this month on hydrofracking and casinos and no matter how much the famously hands-on governor tries to show he had little if anything to do them, the perception will be that these have been made by Cuomo.

Finding ways to boosting the upstate economy has bedeviled governors for more than a generation. What decisions the state makes — potentially all this week — could have lasting consequences for another generation.

Here and Now

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in Albany.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is hosting an off-the-record holiday party this evening for the City Hall press corps and senior staffers at Gracie Mansion.

At 10 a.m., Bodega Association of the US Inc. members and officials and community and government officials hold a news conference to discuss the release of a report about beer pricing, criticize mergers and pricing of franchised beer wholesalers and promote state legislation intended to benefit independent beer wholesalers; steps, City Hall, Manhattan.

Also at 10 a.m., the Assembly will hold the fifth in a series of six statewide public hearings to examine legislation that would establish New York Health, a universal “single payer” health coverage plan, Nassau County Legislative Chamber, Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building, 1550 Franklin Ave., Mineola.

At 10:30 a.m., the Assembly Ethics Committee meets, Room 714, Legislative Office Building, Albany.

At 11 a.m., the Assembly will hold a public hearing to examine the impact of the SFY 2014-2015 State Budget on counties, cities, towns and villages, Roosevelt Hearing Room C, 2nd Floor, Legislative Office Building, Albany.

Also at 11 a.m., Councilmen Paul Vallone and Daniel Garodnick will host a press conference announcing legislation to regulate the private use of drones in New York City, City Hall steps, Manhattan.

Also at 11 a.m., NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer has a press conference at the Farragut Houses, 192 Sands St., Brooklyn.

Also at 11 a.m., Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes hold public forum on Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, 19th floor, 250 Broadway, Manhattan.

At 11:15 a.m., Cuomo holds a cabinet meeting, Red Room, state Capitol, Albany.

At 11:30 a.m., Sen. David Carlucci will host a press conference to make families aware of the dangers that are associated with artificial Christmas trees, Curti Landscaping Christmas Tree Stand, Rockland Shopping Center, 17 North Middletown Rd., Nanuet.

At 12:50 p.m., de Blasio visits Rikers Island, Robert N. Davoren Complex, 11-11 Hazen St., East Elmhurst. A press conference will follow.

At 2 p.m., the Gaming Facility Location Board meets to announce the winners of up to four casino licenses in three upstate regions, Empire State Plaza, Meeting Room 6, Albany.

Also at 2 p.m., nursing home workers represented by SEIU Local 1199 participate in an informational picketing at a Bronx nursing home, as part of similar demonstrations planned at more than 40 nursing homes NYC and on Long Island; Daughters of Jacob Nursing Home, 1160 Teller Ave., the Bronx.

At 2:30 p.m., the Wage Board appointed by state Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera meets, Room 544, Building 12, Harriman State Office Campus, Albany.

At 4 p.m., Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, state GOP Chair Ed Cox, state Sens. Ruben Diaz and Dean Skelos, Marine Toys for Tots Foundation representatives and other New York Hispanic Clergy Organization members distribute free donated toys to up to 1,000 children ages 1 to 9; auditorium, I.S. 216 Rafael Hernandez Middle School, 977 Fox St., the Bronx.

At 8 p.m., Brooklyn BP Eric Adams and Consul General of Pakistan Raja Ejaz will hold a candlelight vigil with members of the Pakistani community after the school massacre in Peshawar that killed 141 people, 132 of them children, 1090 Coney Island Ave., Brooklyn. (Stringer will also attend).

Headlines…

The real “Alpha House” is coming to an end, as Rep. George Miller of California prepares to retire and sell the D.C. home is has long shared with US Sen. Chuck Schumer and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.

With little fanfare to mark a rare bipartisan achievement, President Obama signed a massive, $1.1 trillion spending bill that keeps the government operating over the next nine months.

Kristin Proud, the commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, is the latest high-ranking Cuomo administration official set to depart at the end of the month.

Assembly Democrats challenged Cuomo’s assertion that New York lawmakers had shown little interest in ethics reform, saying they were prepared to back substantial changes to the way business is done in Albany.

Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos accused Cuomo of being insincere in negotiations over a legislative pay raise.

NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer is seeking to settle a $75 million damage claim filed against the city in the chokehold death of Eric Garner — a move that could give Stringer a high-profile role in the case at the expense of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The NYPD announced a $12,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of seven suspects, in connection with a clash between protesters and police on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.

De Blasio will meet at City Hall on Friday with members of Justice League NYC, one of the groups that has staged the protests.

The mayor said police union leaders, who are among his loudest critics, do not speak for all members of the New York Police Department.

A staffer of Rep. Michael Grimm called de Blasio an “asshole” on Facebook. The comment has been deleted, and the congressman – according to his spokesman – neither agrees with nor condones the sentiment. Disciplinary action will be taken.

The divide between Buffalo police and the black community was on display last night as residents repeatedly asked why more isn’t being done to weed out bad cops, and police brass repeatedly told the group they don’t tolerate officers who abuse their authority.

Nine out of 10 New York City teachers received one of the top two rankings in the first year of a new evaluation system that was hailed as a better way of assessing how they perform, according to figures released by the state Education Department.

Overall, more than 95 percent of the state’s teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” in evaluations for the previous school year. That’s despite dismal test scores statewide.

“It’s crazy that the majority of teachers across the state were rated highly when the majority of students aren’t being taught to read and do math at grade level,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of the pro-charter schools organization StudentsFirstNY.

Even as the governor says a long-awaited study on fracking is nearing completion, a large group of local officials want the ban to continue.

More >

Skelos Questions Whether Negotiations On Pay Hike Serious

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos in a statement this evening doubted the seriousness of the negotiations over a special session that could see a legislative pay hike and re-affirmed his opposition to public financing.

“It’s clear that not all of the parties are serious about negotiating. Anyone who is proposing taxpayer financed campaigns, that would cost taxpayers over $200 million, is clearly not listening to New Yorkers who soundly defeated that scheme during the recent election by choosing Republicans to lead the Senate. The Senate will not be acting on the taxpayer funded election plan supported by New York City Mayor de Blasio and the radical and corrupt Working Families Party.”

The Skelos statement came after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in his own statement insisted the Democratic conference wasn’t a roadblock to legislative ethics reform as lawmakers, especially in that chamber, seek their first pay hike since 1998.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would not back a pay increase without the Legislature taking up a package of long-sought ethics and campaign-finance reforms, including public financing.

Cuomo has come under pressure from good-government and public financing advocates in recent months after the most recent state budget was approved with a limited public financing program for the state comptroller’s race.

Cuomo insisted this week in a radio interview on The Capitol Pressroom that even with a legislative pay increase dangled in front of the Legislature, lawmakers as a whole aren’t willing to adopt stringent reforms.

Extras

Jeb Bush announced that he will “actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.” He”ll establish a leadership PAC next month.

As protests and emotions continue to roil over the death of Eric Garner, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer is seeking to negotiate a settlement of a $75 million civil rights claim brought by Garner’s family.

About a dozen members of the Justice League NYC, who have been protesting following the Garner grand jury decision, are scheduled to meet with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tomorrow.

Even the prosecutors who presented evidence to the Garner grand jury were reportedly stunned and disappointed when the panel didn’t indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams said he was appalled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s failure to chastise PBA President Pat Lynch for actions that helped inflame post-Garner tensions between the police and City Hall.

De Blasio appeared on “The View” with his wife, Chirlane McCray, to discuss ongoing protests and tensions surrounding race and policing in the city, and also to defend his own conversations about the issue with his son, Dante.

Better than 9 of 10 teachers in New York received one of the two highest ratings in their annual evaluations last school year, according to new data released by SED.

New York taxpayers are on track to spend over $1 million to help state lawmakers keep details of their outside jobs secret.

AG Eric Schneiderman has sued another Papa John’s pizza franchise for routinely cheating hundreds of employees at six of its city shops out of wages.

A fracking decision is imminent, but a group of local elected officials is calling on Cuomo to extend the state’s moratorium on drilling while more studies are conducted.

The circumstances surrounding several Southern Tier town boards and their position on fracking for natural gas make the case for stronger statewide ethics laws, NYPIRG says.

Work on the Tappan Zee bridge was halted earlier today after silos that are part of the project’s floating concrete plants collapsed.

…This appears to be the first major construction incident on the project since it began nearly two years ago.

The CBC issued guidelines for “wisely” using the state’s $5 billion financial settlement windfall.

To show their appreciation to the Detroit Lions for offering up their stadium during last month’s snowstorm, the Bills shipped off some of Buffalo’s most prized hometown food items – La Nova pizza and wings – to the Motor City team.

Here’s the list of agencies and job titles that would be affected by the governor’s effort to reclassify about 1,000 PEF positions to non-union “managerial/confidential” status.

Sen. Jeff Klein is throwing a Hanukkah BINGO party.

A Utica Fire Station has attracted the ire of a national church-and-state separation group for its holiday sign reading “Happy Birthday Jesus We Love You.”

HIllary Clinton for US Supreme Court justice?

A new poll found 48 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters think Clinton should have a primary opponent if she runs in 2016.

Gregg Birnbaum, formerly of POLITICO (and before that, the NY Post), will replace Joel Siegel (who’s moving to NY1) as managing editor of politics at the Daily News.

Silver: Assembly Dems Not A Roadblock To Reform

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a statement Tuesday afternoon insisted that his chamber is not a roadblock to campaign-finance law changes such as closing the LLC loophole and creating a system of publicly financed campaigns as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he won’t consider backing a pay raise without passage of those measures.

“As I have often said, I believe members of the Legislature work hard and deserve a pay raise,” Silver said in the statement. “It has been reported that a roadblock to a potential deal for a pay raise has been the Legislature’s unwillingness to pass public campaign finance reform and close the LLC loophole. It should be noted that the Assembly Majority, in fact, supports both measures and has passed a bill to accomplish this several times, including this past session. We stand ready to do so once again.”

Silver’s statement follows public pronouncements from both the mainline Democratic conference and the Republican conference in the state Senate who signaled support for reform measures, ostensibly to extract a pay increase from Cuomo.

State lawmakers currently earn $79,500 as base salary.

Silver’s statement doesn’t make mention of support for curtailing outside income, which Cuomo has also indicated is a stipulation to for considering a pay hike.

Support for a pay increase — the first lawmakers would receive since 1998 — is considered especially strong in the Democratic-led Assembly, where lawmakers, especially those from downstate, have been pushing leadership hard to get Cuomo to back a salary hike measure.

DiNapoli Approves More Moreland, Sexual Harassment-Related Contracts

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office on Tuesday announced it had approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending related to legal services for the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption as well as funds for the state Assembly to defend itself in sexual harassment lawsuits.

The comptroller’s office announced $150,000 had been approved for legal services for the firm Kirkland & Ellis to represent the state Senate in the Moreland Commission-related inquiries.

A $150,000 contract with Loeb & Loeb was also approved for the Independent Democratic Conference in proceedings related to the now shuttered anti-corruption panel.

Meanwhile, in the state Assembly, a $397,000 contract with Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman LLP was approved for outside legal services as well as a $177,000 contract for defense work in sexual harassment litigation with the firm Hogan Lovells.

A $59,000 contract with Rossein Associates was approved with the state Assembly in order to develop sexual harassment policy and to conduct investigations.

And a $15,000 contract with Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP was approved for outside counsel for the Assembly to work on the appeals process for Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who is fighting sanctions issued by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office.

Cox: Pataki Serious About 2016

New York Republican Committee Chairman Ed Cox believes former Gov. George Pataki is serious when he says he’s considering a White House run, though stopped short of saying whether the state party would back his candidacy as a “favorite son.”

“He’s very serious about exploring,” Cox said Tuesday evening following a day-long meeting of county chairs. “He’s been out there to New Hampshire several times, down to South Carolina. He’s seriously exploring. In all these areas I worked with him he had an extraordinary, extraordinary record. He was a very good governor of New York and he will be a very good candidate for president.”

Pataki addressed the county chairmen for the first time since he was a sitting governor on Tuesday, a move that comes as chatter grows he’s considering launching a bid for the presidency.

Nevertheless, Cox wouldn’t say if the state party would back Pataki’s bid, which would likely be a steep climb for a candidate who hasn’t run for office since 2002 and left the governor’s office in 2006.

“That’s going to be up to a lot of people in the room there,” Cox said. “That’s not mine to say. They’re going to be taking a look at that great record.”

Pataki would almost certainly face skepticism from a conservative Republican base over his credentials as a moderate former governor of a Democratic northeast state (then again, so did 2012 nominee Mitt Romney).

Still, Cox said Pataki’s speech to Republican committee members was well received.

“He gave a great speech to them and there was a lot of enthusiasm for him in that room,” Cox said.

Pataki was criticized when he left office for not building a party structure, essentially leaving a power vacuum that some in the party say adversely impact its ability to win subsequent statewide races.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, a another Republican former governor signaled his plans to join the 2016 fray: former Florida

Senate Dems: Ready To Pass Ethics Legislation

The Democratic conference in the state Senate backs a passing new ethics and campaign-finance law changes “immediately,” Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement released Tuesday.

The call comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he would not consider backing a legislative pay increase for state lawmakers if they fail to approve long-sought changes to the state’s campaign-finance laws, including the creation of the public funding of political campaigns and the closing of the so-called LLC loophole.

Cuomo also wants to see lawmakers approve restrictions on outside income.

The governor in an interview on Monday said that even with the carrot of a pay increase dangling in front of lawmakers, the Legislature is balking at the reforms he’s pushing.

“The Senate Democratic Conference has consistently called for common sense ethics and campaign reforms and we agree with Governor Cuomo in his call for passing these initiatives immediately,” Stewart-Cousins said in the statement. “As with all progressive legislation, including the NY-SAFE Act, the Compassionate Care Act, and Marriage Equality, the Senate Democratic Conference stands ready to provide the necessary support to ensure passage. Ethics and campaign finance reforms should not be a partisan issue. We will continue our fight to clean up Albany and pass strong ethics reforms and we look forwarding to working with any state leader who will join us in these efforts.”

Senate Republicans, poised to take the full majority at the end of this month in the chamber, released a statement last week indicating they would support additional reform measures, but did not provide much detail.

Talks over the weekend on a special session stalled, though state lawmakers have not ruled out coming back to Albany in a post-Christmas special session.