By Tom Wilber
New York officials crafting policy to regulate shale gas drilling amid unanswered health concerns will likely re-open the process to public hearings, essentially guaranteeing more momentum for the movement that has effectively stalled the industry’s advancement into the Empire State for more than four years.
Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said late this afternoon that agency officials expect to begin a new rulemaking process rather than try to meet a Nov. 29 deadline to complete a regulatory overhaul. The news comes a week after DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens announced that the agency will turn part of the review over to the Department of Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to address persistent questions about how shale gas development and high volume hydraulic fracturing will affect public health in communities where it is allowed.
“Given that DEC has said no regulations or final decision will be issued until the completion of Dr. Shah's review, should high-volume hydraulic fracturing move forward, it is expected that a new rulemaking process would be undertaken,” DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said. That process would include at least one public hearing although DeSantis said no timeframes had been made.
DeSantis was responding to my question about whether the DEC would meet a deadline of Nov. 29 to issue policy that would allow permitting to begin. The deadline, outlined in the State Administrative Procedures Act, mandates that new rules must be finalized within 365 days after the final public hearing, or the state must file for an extension.
The rulemaking process was folded into hearings held last year to assess the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Drafts of that report, called the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), have undergone several revisions amid intense public criticism. Since the review began in the summer of 2008, more than 80,000 comments have been submitted.
Technically, the rulemaking process, which will produce regulations to govern shale gas development, is different from the SGEIS, designed as a guideline for permitting. While permitting conditions are ultimately left up to the discretion of DEC officials, regulations are set in black and white, and therefore carry more clout for enforcement.
While the SGEIS has been evolving since 2008 along with the state’s position on shale gas, the rulemaking process began only last year. The public hearings held for the SGEIS also applied to the rulemaking process, which made it subject to the SAPA deadline.
Attorneys from environmental groups pushing for a more comprehensive review of health impacts were encouraged by the latest indication that the DEC will not begin permitting wells before more vetting and evaluation of concerns. Industry representative, meanwhile, were hopeful that the process would not cause long delays.
Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, said news that the DEC was considering a new rule making process was “hugely important” to the overall debate. Because of the focus on the environmental review, “the rulemaking didn’t get the attention it needed,” she said. Ideally, she added, the state wouldn’t restart the rulemaking process until the SGIES had been finalized. “Then the public would have the benefit of DEC’s environmental analysis before it offers comment on the regulations designed to prevent and mitigate impacts. DEC would know what should be put into regulations and might save itself some litigation.”
Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), had a similar response. “This is reassuring, suggesting that DOH is not going to rush its review… This also provides the opportunity for the agencies to solicit the input of concerned stakeholders in the particular context of health impacts.”
Both NRDC and Earthjustice are among well-healed environmental agencies that have taken up the policy debate over fracking in New York as signature environmental campaigns with national ramifications. The issue of fracking and renewed interest in onshore drilling in general have raised the profile of domestic energy use and production, along with unanswered questions about air and water pollution, and skepticism related to industry’s exemptions from federal clean water and clean air regulation and hazardous waste disposal laws. Fracking has enabled large scale energy extraction in places where it has never traditionally occurred. Even in Texas, the Fort Worth area is experiencing drilling-related tensions as the build out of the industry encompasses urban settings.
Martens has left no doubt that his DEC is working under the threat of lawsuits. The health department review was a recently-added component, in part “to ensure the strongest possible legal position for the Department given the near certainty of litigation,” Martens said in a statement last week.
The process will not get any easier. If the debate is reopened for public hearings, the state would be required again to formally respond to comments – an exhaustive process that has previously overwhelmed DEC staff due to the sheer number of responses. Public hearings have also been draws for activists with placards, frippery, and enthusiasm befitting pep rallies and political conventions.
Given the health and environmental stakes, Goldberg and Sinding are encouraged. “Democracy takes time—and that’s a good thing,” Goldberg said. “The more careful we are, the more information we have, the better chance we have to protect our air, water, and quality of life.”
Several industry representatives expressed varying degrees of confidence that the process would not be delayed much longer. “The failure to complete the rule-making in a time or starting a new one should not be an impediment to moving forward in New York if and when—hopefully sometime in my lifetime—they finally finish the process,” industry attorney Tom West told GNS reporter Jon Campell yesterday.
The news didn't shake the faith of New York State Petroleum Council Executive Director Karen Moreau that the Cuomo administration was competently handling the review. “Certainly any hint at delay is something that doesn’t help the state’s economic picture, but as far as whether or not this is going to affect the ultimate outcome, I can’t say that,” Moreau told Campbell. “We feel very confident that the process is going to unfold as it should, the health review will be done and a determination will be made at that point.”
On a final note, the policy decisions and industry reaction must be considered in the context of a glut in the natural gas market that has reduced prices, lowered the amounts of lease payments and royalties to landowners, and eased political pressure to move quickly in New York. Natural gas prices move in cycles with demand, so that could change.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The National Hurricane Center has run out of names for tropical storms this year and has now moved on to the Greek alphabet during an extremely active hurricane season. Late Monday night, Tropical Storm Beta became the ninth named storm to make landfall. That's the first time so many named storms have made landfall since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was president, according to NBC News.
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By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
Between 2000 and 2013, Earth lost an area of undisturbed ecosystems roughly the size of Mexico.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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