July 11, 2012

Cuomo Calls For Curbing Money In Politics, But Will Money Influence His Decision on Fracking?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that reducing the role of money in politics will move to the top of his agenda: He will begin a push for campaign finance reform in the state. This is great news. But some are questioning whether Cuomo is ready to put his money where his mouth is right now, on an issue of critical importance: Pressure from big money lobbyists might be a factor pushing Cuomo’s administration toward lifting a moratorium on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Cuomo has indicated he will decide shortly, and he seems to be close to a decision to permit fracking in some areas.

Fracking involves pumping large amounts of water, plus chemicals and sand, underground to extract natural gas. There’s plenty of evidence, especially from Pennsylvania, that fracking can be a terrible deal for local residents, with many of them ripped off in deals leasing their land to energy companies and suffering from contaminated water. (Watch this video).

Many New York residents are working to keep fracking out of their state.  On Tuesday, the group New Yorkers Against Fracking held a rally at New York City Hall.  According to EnergyWire (subscription required), four New York state legislators and three members of the New York City council charged that the Cuomo administration had engaged in “collusion” with the natural gas industry during the drafting of state regulations on hydrofracking. This charge comes after the Environmental Working Group published emails indicating that Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) gave industry lobbyists secret access to draft rules weeks before publicly releasing them or  sharing them with environmental advocates.

DEC officials have replied that they did nothing wrong and simply were seeking data from the industry to complete the assessment. But the contacts gave industry lobbyists an inside track on influencing the outcome. Thomas West, a high-priced oil and gas lobbyist, drew on information exchanged to make “one last pitch” to DEC on changes before the agency released proposed rules last fall.

As Cuomo nears a decision on whether to allow fracking to go forward, there are reasons to be concerned about the influence of special interests, including the two largest U.S. natural gas companies, Exxon Mobil and Chesapeake Energy.

Last month, when the New York Times reported that Cuomo’s DEC was preparing to recommend fracking in five economically-troubled counties in the southwest part of the state, but only in places where local communities are supportive, an industry group praised the DEC trial balloon.

The Times, citing an analysis from the New York Public Interest Research Group, reported that ten corporations or trade associations spent $4.5 million over the last three years lobbying Albany on fracking and other natural gas issues. (Republic Report has asked NYPIRG for the data.)

Another cause for concern is that the director of the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources, involved in preparing a related environmental impact statement on fracking, is Bradley J. Field, reportedly a persistent advocate for fracking (and also a climate change denier).

And while Cuomo said Monday that “it’s inarguable” that local community opposition fracking “should be taken into consideration” in granting hydrofracking permits, the next day he stressed that local views are  “relevant,” but not “necessarily determinative.”

VIDEO: In Albany on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses fracking in New York state.

The group of influential people now pushing Cuomo to make New York a leader in getting money out of politics should ask that the Governor apply that principle to his decision on fracking.