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February 19, 2013

Cuomo, Obama aren't necessarily environmentalists

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Barack Obama both are stalling on making major environmental decisions on energy development proposals. Meanwhile, the opposition is building as the climate-change issue gains momentum with each new statistic and extreme weather event.

On Sunday, more than 30,000 protesters showed up in Washington to call on Obama to follow through on the comments he made on climate change in his inaugural address. The specific focus of many demonstrators was the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the major northern section of which awaits government approval.

In his address Jan. 21, the president said the nation “will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast, is a major issue for climate change because oil companies must use extraction and processing methods that use a lot of energy — thus sinking a greenhouse-gas footprint much larger than that made with convention crude oil.

The government has already given a green light to the southern part of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to the Gulf. The president has been delaying a decision on the Canada-to-Oklahoma portion, perhaps because of the November election. But a decision is expected in the coming months.

Another cause of concern is the president’s continuing references to expansion of natural gas drilling, though he insists it would be done safely. Many fear that Obama may push for the approval of hydraulic fracturing to boost natural-gas production and cut down on oil consumption.

While gas production and use are not as polluting as oil, they still are not the right direction in which to go as the symptoms of climate change are worsening by the day.

Cuomo is faced with the same dilemma as he continues to put off a decision on fracking in the Marcellus Shale in New York state. Last week, yet another delay was announced when the state health commissioner said he needed more time to complete a study of the health impacts of fracking.

Fracking is controversial because drillers send a high-pressure toxic cocktail into the shale to free natural gas. The process also allows drillers to free gas horizontally. Fracking threatens aquifers used for drinking water, and the wastewater that comes to the surface afterward is more toxic than what was sent down, creating a problem for safe disposal.

In a letter to Joseph Martens, Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, last week, Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah said “the DOH Public Health Review will require additional time to complete based on the complexity of the issues. My team and I will be in Pennsylvania and Washington in the coming days for first-hand briefings on these studies and their progress, which will assist in informing the New York review.”

Shah said he would be reviewing recent studies focusing on links between fracking and health impacts on drinking water, as well as other areas such as air quality and community impacts.

The state has been studying the fracking issue for years, and Shah’s investigation is considered a deciding piece is a process that will allow fracking under strict state regulation or ban it altogether.

While it is great that the DEC would at least wait for the public-health study before issuing a final environmental impact statement and making a decision on fracking regulations, comments last week by Martens were disturbing.

Reacting to Shah’s letter asking for more time, the DEC chief said, if the DOH Public Health Review finds that the SGEIS has adequately addressed health concerns, and I adopt the SGEIS on that basis, DEC can accept and process high-volume hydraulic fracturing permit applications 10 days after issuance of the SGEIS.”

Fortunately, he added that, “if, on the other hand, the DOH review finds that there is a public health concern that has not been assessed in the SGEIS or properly mitigated, we would not proceed, as I have stated in the past.”

It is hard to imagine the public-health study not finding severe risks involved in fracking, based on the evidence from locations where it has been, and is being, carried out. Something is wrong if the DEC goes ahead and issues fracking permits or merely adjusts its regulations to incorporate Shah’s concerns.

Cuomo and the DEC, just like Obama, need to get on the side of the environment, climate change and public health. They must put an end to proposals that would allow any fracking.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.