Fearing well documented risks to human health and the environment, over 100 local municipalities in New York have banned or placed moratoriums on horizontal hydrofracking drilling for natural gas. How does this compare with the three branches of state government?
State courts - In February, in separate case in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, state supreme courts have ruled the municipalities can use local zoning ordinances to prohibit hydrofracking in their jurisdictions. While the state regulates technically how drilling takes place, the courts say the locals can determine where drilling is permitted, if at all.
Executive Branch - In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office unofficially indicated that local communities can decide whether or not to allow the drillers in. Where local governments have taken steps to prohibit drilling, state hydrofracking permits would not be issued.
State Assembly - The elected assembly in Albany, the branch of government closest to the people, has heard the voters' call for action. On May 16, 2012, the assembly passed a bill that clarifies local government's home rule authority to control where oil and gas drilling will take place. The bill passed with a 93 to 46 vote. A companion bill in the Senate languishes in a committee.
On Feb. 13, the Assembly passed a bill requiring the toxic drilling wastes be disposed of like other hazardous materials. Currently classified as less dangerous industrial wastes, drilling fluids can now be disposed of in ways that endanger human health and the environment. The Assembly bill passed 105 to 38. A companion bill in the Senate languishes in a committee.
On June 20, the Assembly passed a bill calling for a first ever health impact study of horizontal hydrofracking. The bill passed with a 128 to 17 vote. The Senate has yet to introduce a similar bill.
AWOL State Senate - If the State Assembly can muster overwhelming majorities in favor of these three bills, what is the problem in the Senate? Is the Senate, especially its leaders, in the gas industry's pocket?
Between 2007 and 2011, a Common Cause study found that gas industry funding for the election of favored candidates in New York topped $1.2 million. National Fuel, National Grid, Con Edison and Independent Power Producers of New York each kicked in more than $192,000.
Senate majority leader Dean Skelos took in $24,000 while the assembly leader Sheldon Silver received only $2,750. George Maziarz, chairman of the senate energy committee, collected $38,000 and the chair of the senate rules committee collected $33,000. Other members of the senate divided up another $400,000, double what went to assembly members.
And how about lobbying? In 2012 alone the gas industry and the Business Council of New York State spent more than $2.8 million lobbying legislators to defeat drilling moratorium bills in the state legislature.
Unlike the assembly, the senate heard the gas industry's call for inaction. And, based on the senate's do-nothing gas drilling record, the industry's check writing strategy paid off. While corporate campaign contributions are not legally a bribe, in this case, it is a close call.
Ronald Fraser, PhD, lives in the town of Colden and is a member of the town's environmental planning board.