Sanders: ‘No Fracking Anywhere’

Another day, another TV ad from Sen. Bernie Sanders, this time with a focus on fracking – a hot topic in New York not that long ago, which galvanized a group of advocates (AKA, the fracktvists), many of whom remain active in politics and are now Sanders supporters.

The ad maintains Sanders is the only presidential candidate who would ban the controversial natural gas drilling technique “everywhere.” He focused on this issue while appearing earlier today for a campaign event in Binghamton in New York’s Southern Tier, which was ground zero in the fracking debate.

“The growing body of evidence tells us that fracking is a danger to our water supply, our most precious resource,” Sanders told some 5,000 supporters who packed the Veterans Memorial Arena to hear him speak. “It is a danger to the air we breathe. It has resulted in more earthquakes. It is highly explosive. And it is contributing to climate change.”

Sanders’ home state of Vermont has adopted a fracking ban, as has New York – after more than five years of heated debate and foot-dragging by the Cuomo administration. In Binghamton, Sanders applauded Cuomo for finally coming down on the side of the fracktivist community against big oil, but he also said that if we are “serious” about combatting climate change and protecting the environment, then federal officials will ban fracking across the nation.

Sanders noted that his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, promoted fracking overseas while she was serving as secretary of state in the Obama administration. Sanders and his supporters have been pressuring Clinton for her campaign cash ties to big oil. (Remember this incident?)

President Obama is a natural gas booster, though his administration did issue tighter fracking rules in 2015, which were immediately challenged in court by the gas industry. Environmentalists weren’t thrilled with the new rules, either.

Sanders’ new ad – the third her has released in as many days in New York as the April 19 primary draws near – is narrated by actress Susan Sarandon. The candidate also has the support of actor Mark Ruffalo, an outspoken anti-fracking activist who made numerous lobbying trips to the state Capitol during the drilling debate.

Bills-Sabres Owner & Cuomo Donor Defends Fracking During 60 Minutes Sports Interview

Acknowledging the “irony” of how a business practice that’s illegal in New York State helped keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York, billionaire Terry Pegula defended the controversial gas drilling method better known as hydro-fracking.  The Bills and Sabres owner’s comments came during an interview that aired on Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports, Tuesday night.

“I’m very proud of what I do. I’m in the oil and gas business I have been my whole life.  I believe my industry is getting some publicity it doesn’t deserve,” Pegula said.

As detailed in the 60 Minutes Sports report, Pegula turned a $7,500 loan from friends and family into the oil and gas company, East Resources Inc.  The company formed in the 1980’s and eventually became a multi-billion dollar business, thanks in part to drilling in the Marcellus Shale region across New York’s border in Pennsylvania.

In 2014, Pegula sold the gas drilling rights of thousands of acres of land in Ohio for $1.75 billion.  It was a deal that went through a little before Pegula bought the Bills for $1.4 billion.

Pegula is seen by many in Western New York as a hero for purchasing the Bills, as at least one outside bidder proposed moving the team to Toronto.  Even those who oppose fracking haven’t shied away from singing his praises, including Governor Cuomo.

Pegula was a significant donor to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign last year, even as it appeared his administration was moving closer to a permanent fracking ban.  The apparent ties between the two led Green Party Gubernatorial Candidate Howie Hawkins to lash out at Pegula, calling his fracking profits a “scandal.”

Even as the State DEC moved to officially ban fracking this summer, the perceived mutual goal of rebuilding Buffalo continued to tie the Governor and Bills-Sabres owner together.  Pegula was careful not to criticize Cuomo or his policies directly, Tuesday night.

“There is some irony there though, is there not? Asked CBS Correspondent Jeff Glor. “It’s a practice that’s still not allowed in New York State and in large part has kept the Bills in New York State.”

“Yeah,” Pegula said. “That’s quite a twist isn’t it?”

Zucker Says DOH Will Look At Gelled Propane

zuckerThe commissioner of the state Department of Health in an interview on Monday said he is taking a look at the alternative method for extracting natural gas that could sidestep the state’s ban on hydrofracking.

“It was brought to my attention because I read about it and head about it, but I haven’t spoken directly to my team,” Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a Capital Tonight interview. “Anything that deals with the public’s health is something I will look at.”

Zucker, however, would not go into much detail on whether he believed the process should move forward in New York. More >

Martens to Depart DEC

One day after codifying the state’s fracking ban – the signature issue of his tenure at the helm of the DEC – the agency’s commissioner, Joe Martens, has informed his senior staffers that he plans to depart in July.

In an email being sent to all agency employees, Martens says it has been an “honor, an education and a gift” to head the DEC since 2011 – the first year Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office. He also informs staffers that his executive deputy, Marc Gerstman, will serve as acting commissioner “to ensure a seamless transition and continuation of the many initiatives we have in the works.”

An administrative source familiar with Martens’ plans says he will be returning to the Open Space Institute, of which he was president from 1998 to 2011, as a senior advisor.

“I could not be prouder of the way you responded to each and every emergency Mother Nature threw at New York State (and there were many),” Martens writes in his email. “Most recently, our Rangers and ECOs demonstrated their unique skills to help track down and bring dangerous felons to justice. I’m also proud of the leadership we have shown in virtually every one of our program areas.”

“…Throughout all of these initiatives, you continually worked to improve and streamline the way we do business,” the departing commissioner continues. “I am perhaps most proud of the way you have worked creatively with our local government partners as well as our stakeholders: business, agricultural and environmental, to solve problems. Collectively, we have put into practice the belief that when we work together, the public and private sector, we are all better off.”

Though he will likely be best remembered for heading the DEC during the long debate over fracking, which started during former Gov. David Paterson’s administration – in other words, before Martens took the helm – a number of other environmental initiatives were started or accomplished on the outgoing commissioner’s watch.

In his email, Martens mentions everything from lowering the cap on greenhouse gas emissions and securing funding for long-neglected flood control structures and coastal erosion projects to banning the sale and importation of elephant and rhinoceros ivory and undertaking “one of the largest additions to the forest preserve in the state’s history.”

“And, at long last, we concluded our review of hydraulic fracturing and decided that there was simply too many unknowns and the possible risks too great to allow it to go forward,” Martens concludes.

Martens is one of the few commissioners from Cuomo’s first term still on the job. Rumors of his departure have been circulating for some time, and it was once speculated that he might be replaced by former Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who was the last “yes” voting GOP senator still in the chamber until he lost his seat in the 2014 elections to Democratic Sen. Marc Panepinto.

Grisanti was recently nominated by Cuomo and confirmed by the Senate to a judgeship.

Last December, after the initial announcement that the Cuomo administration had decided to ban fracking in the Marcellus shale, I asked Martens during a CapTon interview if he had plans to depart his DEC post.

“I have no plans,” he responded with a laugh. “If I was going to leave, I would have left before this decision came out, because this took a lot of work.”

As Fracking Ban Nears, Gas Industry Prepares Legal Action

As the state Department of Environmental Conservation prepares to put the rubber stamp on a ban on high volume hydraulic fracturing, representatives from the oil and gas industry say they’re preparing to take legal action.

At a press conference in Albany, the American Petroleum Institute’s Karen Moreau told reporters she’s been in touch with attorneys both within her ogranization and outside counsel that’s “very skilled with respect to the process in New York.”

This comes as the DEC prepares to release its Findings Statement on the natural gas drilling process. The statement is expected to contain language that institutes an all-out ban on fracking in New York.

The statement is based on the department’s environmental review of fracking, the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. That review, released last month, contained analysis from the DEC that suggested fracking would pose a risk to the environment and health of adjacent homeowners.

There’s no deadline for the DEC to issue its Findings Statement, though its expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Moreau says her organization and the companies it represents have been exploring legal options leading up to that release.

“Our attorneys have already evaluated the body of evidence that’s already there, and we need to look at this,” Moreau said, “and our companies will actually direct – we know what they want us as an organization to do.”

Moreau says the fracking ban represents a major profit loss for companies, as well as property owners.

“The property owners,” Moreau said. “They’re looking at the loss of their property rights.”

That’s referring to leases gas companies signed with residents before the state issued its moratorium on fracking in 2010. Moreau says that could prompt lawsuits from individual companies as well.

“And the individual companies that have invested here, many of whom invested millions of dollars in signed leases that have expired,” Moreau said. “They also will make decisions whether they want to sue individually as companies.”

Much of that will depend on the language involved in the state’s ultimate ban on fracking. Advocates, including Moreau, are hoping a review from the EPA last week on fracking will have an impact.

That review said there’s been no significant evidence that fracking has caused any widespread damage to drinking water.

It did indicate, however, that there are “potential vulnerabilities” to water supplies that could be traced back to waste generated by the gas-drilling process.

Fracking Backers Seize On EPA Report, Call for Ban Reversal

In the wake of an EPA study that found no evidence fracking has had a “widespread, systematic impact on drinking water,” supporters of the controversial drilling practice are calling on the Cuomo administration to scrap its plans for a ban.

“I fully expect Governor Cuomo to reverse his previous decision to ban fracking which was based upon controversial scientific studies and made to appease far left environmentalists,” Rep. Chris Collins, a Buffalo Republican, said in a statement. “Hardworking New Yorkers deserve the job opportunities.”

The anti-drilling group Frack Action responded to Collins on Twitter, accusing him of “once again ridiculously pandering to the gas industry, denying the facts and science.”

Bu Collins call was echoed by the state Business Council, whose president and CEO Heather Briccetti said (also in a statement):

“Now that the EPA has confirmed what top scientists have said all along, that fracking is safe and has no widespread impact on drinking water, we are calling on Commissioner Martens and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to rescind the temporary ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State.”

“The permit conditions laid out in the revised 2011 SGEIS addressed all of the concerns contained in today’s EPA report. The state should adopt those permit conditions and allow fracking to safely move forward.”

The EPA’s four-year study did indicate that there are “potential vulnerabilities” to water supplies that need to be addressed by ensuring fracking wastewater is properly disposed of and that wells are built to minimize leaks.

After more than six years of debate that started long before his arrival in the executive mansion in January 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last year that the state would ban fracking in New York for the foreseeable future due to health risks.

The final SGEIS on fracking was released by the DEC in May. The findings statement that was supposed to be issued 10 days after the final SGEIS’ publication and would make the ban legally binding has not yet been released by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. That statement is expected to be the trigger for lawsuits challenging the state’s ban, should any be in the offing.

UPDATE: New Yorkers Against Fracking issued the following statement from John Armstrong of Frack Action, who has an alternative take on the EPA’s findings:

“The EPA study confirms what the oil and gas industry has long denied, that fracking poisons drinking water. Like hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, this shows that New York was right to ban fracking.”

“Despite serious shortcomings, including the fact that the oil and gas industry refused access to collect the data needed, the EPA study clearly shows that fracking has been impacting and contaminating drinking water. All water is connected. Any sign of drinking water contamination signals a public health crisis and is a call for a ban.”

Reed Not Impressed With DEC Report On Fracking

The 2,000-page report on hydrofracking, released the Department of Environmental Conservation Wednesday, did little to change the mind of a Western New York Congressman. Republican Tom Reed has been an unapologetic supporter of fracking, and told Time Warner Cable News he’s not impressed with the DEC’s findings.

“That’s the best that New York State can do after seven years of studying this issue?” Reed asked.

The report, which takes more than 260,000 public comments into consideration, concludes there are major uncertainties about potential health and environmental risks associated with high-volume fracking.  Reed saw no evidence in the report that definitively proves fracking is harmful.

“Probably millions of dollars of taxpayer money going to research the issue and they come up with a qualitative maybe there’s an issue there? It begs the question, is this being done with science and data or is this being done for political purposes,” said Reed.

The report is seen as one of the final steps before Governor Cuomo makes a temporary moratorium on hydrofracking permanent.  Reed, whose 23rd Congressional District butts up against the Pennsylvania border and sits atop the Marcellus Shale, said the ban has put his district at a disadvantage.

“We’ve had family farmers in tears, multi-generational family farmers who were relying on the opportunity that would come from the development of the natural gas rights on their property and now they’re looking at me like how can I keep the farm?”

Despite the move that appears to be coming in Albany, Reed remains hopeful the impending ban can one day be lifted.

“I’m always the eternal optimist but I’m also very practical,” said Reed. “Clearly asking the Governor to reconsider this is not going to end in a result where he will, but I’m going on record on behalf of thousands of people in Western New York who own their property, who pay their taxes on their property,” Reed added.

On the other side, those in favor of banning fracking describe the DEC report as a victory over the gas drilling industry.

“This is a really proud moment for every one of them because protecting public health triumphed over industry pressure. There are thousands of pages of fine detail to sort through, and we know much work remains, like banning other states’ fracking waste from being dumped inside our borders,” said Water & Natural Resources Associate Liz Moran.

Reed: Federal Regulations Show Fracking Can Be Done In New York

Congressman Tom Reed is once again calling on Governor Cuomo to change his position on fracking. The Corning Republican suggested new federal regulations on the issue show a “fracture” between Democrats.

“To see that Gov. Cuomo can’t do in New York State what the Obama administration is doing on the federal level is amazing,” Reed said in a conference call with reporters Monday.

New Federal regulations, announced on Friday, updated rules for 95,000 oil and gas wells that operate on Federal land. Reed said he’s not necessarily a fan of President’s Obama’s oversight of natural gas development and hydrofracking, but unlike Governor Cuomo he said at least the Obama Administration is moving forward.

“Clearly, the Obama administration has relied on the best scientists, the best data, the best information that is out there,” Reed said.

Reed is calling on the Governor to look at the science used by the administration as a model to allow development of the Marcellus Shale in New York. In statement released Monday night Reed said:

“I am calling on Gov. Cuomo to reverse his ill-conceived fracking ban that infringes on constitutionally protected property rights. If the Obama administration and even California Gov. Jerry Brown can side with farmers and landowners, now is the time to undo such a damaging and job-killing policy.”

Meantime, Reed is also proposing the Defense of Property Rights Act. The idea, detailed in an oped, would allow property owners adversely impacted by the ban on hydrofracking to seek compensation.

Collins Hopes To Prove Cuomo Administration Wrong On Fracking

Western New York Congressman Chris Collins has made no secret of the fact he’s unhappy with the Cuomo Administration’s stance on hydrofracking.  As the Clarence Republican enters his second term, he’s hoping to use a more prominent role in the 114th Congress to prove the Governor got it wrong.

“Economically New York State needs to be hydrofracking and certainly in the Southern Tier the benefits would be tremendous,” said Collins.

House Speaker John Boehner assigned Collins to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that includes spots on three subcommittees: Health, Communications and Technology, and Oversight and Investigations.

“I want to make sure we have hearings that highlight the safety and the economic impact of hydrofracking around the country, whether it’s in North Dakota or Texas so I can bring facts forward to show that the Governor made the wrong decision,” Collins said.

Following suggestions by fellow GOP Congressman Tom Reed that the federal government could have the authority to overrule the anticipated ban, Collins’ call for hearings could signal a concerted effort to undermine the findings of the state DEC and the Department of Health.

“I’m going to use my role on Energy and Commerce to make sure Western New York has a very active role here in DC,” he said. 

Far removed from the freshman who accidentally showed up at a Democratic Congressional breakfast in 2012, Collins is hoping to take on more of a leadership role in the New York Congressional Delegation.  He’s also offered his help to the NRCC in 2016.

“Typically your first re-elect is your toughest so I’ve already stepped forward to say I would like to use my resources to help our members get re-elected and I’ll just do what I can to make them feel welcome.  I know where I was two years ago, kind of a deer in a headlight drinking out of a fire hydrant,” Collins added.

Collins is now one of eight New York Republicans in the House of Representatives.  That could increase to nine if the GOP can hold on to the seat left vacant by former congressman Michael Grimm.     


Martens Staying Put

After presiding over a seemingly endless review of fracking in New York and weathering considerably criticism for the delay in a decision, it would be hard to blame DEC Commissioner Joe Martens for wanting to take a break.

Martens, a former president of the Open Space Institute and widely respected environmentalist, has served as head of the DEC since January 2011. (He was one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s early appointees).

Back in November, there was a rumor that Martens’ would soon be departing his post, replaced by outgoing Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti, who lost his re-election bid to Democratic Senator-elect Marc Panepinto.

There was some logic to that idea. Grisanti chairs the Senate’s Environmental Committee, and also earned a big chit with the governor when he crossed party lines as one of four GOP senators to vote “yes” on gay marriage in the summer of 2011.

Cuomo declined to endorse Panepinto in the fall elections, but that didn’t help Grisanti, who was in a tight spot after losing the GOP primary and trying to seek re-election running just on the Independence Party line.

Despite whatever political favors Cuomo might still owe Grisanti, the DEC float was quickly shot down by an agency spokesperson, who said Martens had no plan to give up his job.

And apparently, the end of the fracking hasn’t changed his mind.

“I have no plans,” Martens said with a laugh when I asked him during a CapTon interview last night about his future.

“If I was going to leave, I would have left before this decision came out, because this took a lot of work.”

“And I just want to say I have to tip my hat, not only to DOH staff, but to DEC staff, who for – some of them six years – have been studying this issue exhaustively,” the commissioner continued.

“The draft supplemental generic environmental impact statements we put out reflected an enormous amount of work on the department and its staff, and I have to tip my hat to them.”

Despite Martens’ intent to stick around, the steady stream of top Cuomo administration officials heading for the door before Term II continues, however.

Capital NY reports that the latest departure will be that of State Labor Commissioner and former Assemblyman Peter Rivera, who submitted his retirement papers to the state comptroller’s office on Dec. 4. His retirement takes effect at the end of the year.