June 15, 2012

Is Home Rule a good idea for gas drilling?

My use of the phrase "classic Albany compromise" in my earlier post on the leaks about a proposal to allow hydrofracking in places that seem to want it has created some confusion, online and off. As I wrote elsewhere:

I probably should clarify my use of that phrase, but typically it involves a stench, a lot of lobbyists, many carefully-drawn district lines, and the "leadership" asking over and over "what's in it for me?".

There's no sense in that of anything good coming out of it, except occasionally by accident.

For all of the twists and turns, the story here is driven by a Governor's ambition: Andrew Cuomo is looking for a way to keep his energy vision for New York City alive, develop a plan that will work with both the pro-fracking leadership of the State Senate and the (less decisively) anti-fracking leadership of the Assembly, and ease the pressure on an issue that has many New Yorkers prepared to shred his environmental record should he run for President in 2016. (He'd also like to make sure gas companies actually drill here after all the build-up, and the tax revenues would be nice.)

That's a lot of needle-threading to do, and Home Rule - letting municipalities decide whether they want in or out of drilling - is a clear way to take the political pressure off Albany and redirect it locally, where it won't likely make as many state or national headlines. That's the other part of why this is a "classic Albany compromise" - it has a large "hey, look over there!" component to it.

There's a harder question lurking underneath the Albany politics, though. It's politically dangerous but worth examining anyway. As the proposal to allow drilling suggests Town-by-Town approval, hydrofracking opponents seem to be joining gas company attorney and lobbyist Tom West (the lead attorney on the lawsuit against Dryden) in pressing for a simple statewide decision - in their case, to ban.

I can't shift that way, at least not in the long term.

I think that the Department of Environmental Conservation's proposed regulations are inadequate, and that the SGEIS lives in a strange fantasyland concocted by industry geologists. I have little faith in the DEC in its current form to create or enforce regulations that substantially reduce the risk of long-term damage to groundwater, reduce the impacts on the surface, or make industry consider our environment as something more than a relatively minor cost of business.

That absolutely has to change, and if this proposal goes forward under regulations that look much like the previous round, then talk of "sacrifice zones" based on, as Sandra Steingraber put it bluntly, "partitioning our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation", is painfully appropriate. Steuben, Chemung, Tioga, Chenango, and Broome counties, and maybe more depending on how the details work out, would become a testing ground for these weak regulations, and worse, for industry's ability to cover up their mistakes and state regulators' interest in helping them.

(Given the collapsed price of gas at the moment, I will not be surprised if energy companies focus their efforts on the 'wetter' gas of shale further west to get more profitable oil, while pretending that whatever regulations New York comes up with were too terribly burdensome for them to consider drilling here. Even with dismally bad regulations, fracking isn't attractive at current gas prices, and regulations that begin to address the issues would increase the cost enough that drillers wouldn't bother until gas prices climbed substantially.)

I look at the map the New York Times included with their article and feel very queasy. I grew up in Corning, and my parents still live there. That area would be surrounded. I know the area from Hornell to Binghamton very well, and that's all in there. The Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, another area I've always considered in my neighborhood, is already a mess, and this plan stretches those costs and risks northward.

I've occasionally said that if my world collapsed I'd retreat to Caton, a town just south of Corning that I've always found amazingly beautiful. I even started looking at real estate there once. If drilling happened there (and I have no idea whether there's even a pro- or anti-fracking movement there), it would likely close that option off to me, and litter that landscape, those roads, and that water with junk for a brief flow of cash and energy.

At the same time, though, living in Dryden, I don't think it's my prerogative to tell Caton that it has to remain free of gas drilling so I can preserve my memories and keep open an unlikely dream. I'd be delighted if they banned drilling, and if Caton residents read this site they might find reasons that applied to them - but it's not unusual for people to do things I disagree with.

I certainly want the state to live up to the environmental regulation responsibilities it has claimed so forcefully, so I'm not claiming that everything should be determined locally. At the same time, though, Home Rule has a lot more appeal to me than just its power to ban gas drilling. Taking Home Rule seriously, as I think we have to, means that it's not just a means for telling the state to slow down and the gas industry to go away.

Taking Home Rule seriously means that we have to recognize that different places are different, and that they have different priorities. Yes, it's a dangerously imperfect tool. Municipal lines are arbitrary, elections can change things at any time, and a vote in favor of drilling would make it very hard for a place to ever change back. It also has a nasty risk that people in places that have banned drilling won't spend much time worrying about the state regulations for places that are drilling.

I don't trust Governor Cuomo or, after reading the SGEIS, the DEC, and I suspect that this approach is their way of shortcutting solid regulation design. Despite that, and the known risks that come with the best case home rule scenario, though, I still can't bring myself to say "Home Rule for me and not for thee."

Posted by simon at June 15, 2012 12:15 PM in , ,
Note on photos