When Regulations Aren’t Enough

DEC’s headquarters in Albany  Photo Credit: Phinney Design Group

DEC’s headquarters in Albany  Photo Credit: Phinney Design Group

Governor Cuomo held to the expectation that he would not allow the state Dept. of Health to release its report on high volume horizontal hydrofracking (fracking) before this year’s mid-term election.  But during a debate in October, he asserted that he would release the report before the end of 2014.

Its release will be a landmark moment in NY history and New Yorkers on both sides of the issue have been waiting impatiently to see what’s in it.  The creation of this health report has been the Governor’s core justification for the moratorium on fracking, but once it’s out, that rationale will be gone and the Governor will surely allow fracking to move forward.

Here’s the good news: fracking will likely come to New York with some of the strongest regulations in the country – the gold standard that has been called for by a wide range of interests, from America’s Natural Gas Alliance to NRDC to former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And here’s the bad news:  the regs will look great, as good regulations promise protection of public health, waterways, and landscapes.  But regulations are only as good as the enforcement backing them.  And, sadly, the state agency responsible for stopping pollution – the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) – has been decimated by budget and staff cuts dating back to the Spitzer administration.

Between 2008 and 2010, DEC lost 849 staff, and these positions were not refilled during Governor Cuomo’s first term, leaving the department about 25% below pre-cut levels.  The result is an agency that is unable to implement existing regulations, let alone stringent regulations on fracking.

So unless we see a significant reinvestment in New York’s most important pollution regulatory agency, I have little confidence that regulations, no matter how strong and well intentioned, will produce promised protections. With fracking, New Yorkers are likely in for gold-standard regulations that are really made of tin.

UPDATE:  On December 17, 2014, Governor Cuomo announced, through his Dept. of Health and Dept. of Env. Conservation commissioners, that he would prohibit fracking in New York.  This was a bold decision and, I believe, a good one for New York's public health and environment.