Editor’s Notebook: The Big Ban

February 2014, Vol. 241 No. 2

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants it both ways: sorely needed economic development minus the leading factor that could entice companies, cheap and abundant natural gas.
TV commercials tout big tax incentives for companies willing to relocate or expand in New York State. Unlike Pennsylvania, Cuomo prefers to do it without drilling for gas in portions of the Marcellus Shale that stretch into southern New York and the Finger Lakes regions.

This is nothing new for those who follow Empire State politics. I lived eight years in the Southern Tier city of Binghamton and Albany, the capital. Both are a microcosm of upstate communities: declining population, declining tax revenue, declining industry, decaying infrastructure, 10% state income tax, etc. These communities reached in their zenith in the 1940s and 1950s when industry churned out everything from textiles to light bulbs to main frames to shoes to cameras to weapons of war. Now they produce practically nothing.

Natural gas companies have tried for years to get permission to drill in New York, something that has not been done there in 70 years. Their best change was in September 2012 when the State Energy Planning Board was to have completed a report expanding the use of natural gas. That would have involved fracking which is banned in New York but has been under environmental review since 2008. That’s given the opposition plenty of time to gather their forces and lobby the state to continue the ban. So Cuomo ordered the state health commissioner to review the effects of gas drilling. That study is still ongoing, and – shades of Keystone XL – there’s no telling when it will be completed. What I can tell you is this: 1) landowners and businesspeople in the Southern Tier would do cartwheels in the snow if drilling was allowed because they need revenue and jobs; 2) it never will be allowed because if Cuomo & Co. can find any reason to continue the ban, they will.

This was borne out by Cuomo’s State-of-the-State speech last month when he pointedly did not mention gas drilling as protesters rallied outside against fracking. Instead, the state’s new energy plan pushes for more renewable energy and “clean” technology that it says will reduce utility bills. Not that they are opposed to natural gas, providing it is produced elsewhere.

Cuomo is spending most of his time nowadays on ethics reform and redefining political contribution rules. Lest you think he might be taking his eye off the economic issue he has an ace up his sleeve, literally. He wants the state to legalize casino gambling, something that I think would upset upstate residents more than an unseen pipeline or drilling rig since the state gaming commission can locate a casino anywhere it chooses.

I asked a journalism colleague, Dan Lynch, for a perspective. Dan is from upstate New York and was a newsman in Albany for 30 years. He lives in Boca Raton, FL but still has a summer home in the Finger Lakes area. His take offers valuable insight into the political game energy has become.

Here’s what he had to say: “In my neighborhood on Keuka Lake opposition is ferocious. It comes, of course from Democrats who oppose all development of petroleum resources. That’s especially true in the City of Ithaca on the tip of Cayuga Lake and home to a number of colleges, among them Cornell. It comes, too, however, from lakefront owners throughout the region, most of whom are ardent Republicans and deeply conservative.

“Many lakefront owners are people with primary homes elsewhere, and they’re influential people in their own communities. Most seem to understand the value of fracking in terms of the national energy picture, but they also understand the benefit if fracking is done elsewhere. These are prosperous people who fear even the slightest chance of lake pollution. That’s why hugely expensive sewer systems are being constructed along the shorelines of every lake, and the locals are bearing the heavy cost of these operations because the feds find these neighborhoods too prosperous for federal aid.

“In short, the water quality of the lakes is hugely important to the region, both for tourism and agriculture, and worship of the environment is immensely powerful there even among the most Republican and conservative of property owners. That’s a uniquely local situation that drives the opposition. Combine that with the political power of the Sierra Club, etc., and other Democratic Party interests in an 8-5 Democratic state, and Cuomo’s opposition makes political sense for him. I really don’t see it changing.”

Maybe it’s time for another Rockefeller to run the state.