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  • Pramilla Malick

OPINION | New York state's final chance to stop fracking is slipping away

By Pramilla Malick and James Cromwell

New York banned fracking in 2014, Maryland recently followed suit, and local ordinances to limit it have been passed in 22 states. But a fracking expansion juggernaut is subverting state and local attempts to keep fracking’s negative impacts out.

The federal fix is in, with the Trump administration ramming through project approvals and reversing Obama’s initiatives to regulate fracking’s air and water impacts and methane leakage.

There has been some push-back from the courts, including important decisions over the last few days rejecting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of Florida's Southeast Market pipelines because it ignored their climate impacts, and upholding New York state's refusal to issue a water permit for the Constitution Pipeline.

ADVERTISEMENTStill, some of the damage to state power to say “no” to fracking has been self-inflicted. Even in states like New York and California, which proclaim themselves sustainability leaders, fracked gas power plants and infrastructure are getting builtover local objections, to serve as markets for fracked gas producer states like Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Increasingly, fracking’s environmental and health impacts are coming home to residents who fought to keep fracking out and believed they had prevailed.

Sadly, they haven’t. New York is a cautionary case in point. Already the fourth-largest consumer of fracked gas in the U.S. despite its famous fracking ban, New York is surely on track to become the largest. It took a giant step down that path by allowing Competitive Power Ventures (CPV) to build an unneeded 680 MW fracked gas plant in the Hudson Valley’s Orange County.

CPV opponents call it “the head of the snake,” because the plant necessitates a vast network of pipelines, compressor stations and fracking wells. Despite CPV’s spectacularly inappropriate siting, its efforts to preempt state laws and regulations, and an egregious corruption scandal, construction of the plant continues. If it becomes operational, it will signal a public health and climate catastrophe, and carte blanche for fracking expansion elsewhere.

In his last state of the state report, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York “must double down” on renewable energy “by investing in the fight against dirty fossil fuels and fracked gas from neighboring states,” and touted his goal of cutting New York's greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. But CPV would import and burn untenable quantities of dirty fracked gas from Pennsylvania, singlehandedly increasing New York's GHG emissions by 10 percent, according to the testimony of Cornell University's Anthony Ingraffea at our recent civil disobedience trial. This would effectively put Cuomo’s emissions goals beyond reach.

Some studies have found fracked gas is worse for the climate than oil or coal. Its infrastructure network emits large amounts of fugitive methane, at least 86 times more powerful a warming agent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. Burning it emits particulate pollution under 2.5 microns that crosses the blood-brain barrier, as well as co-contaminants we breathe such as formaldehyde, benzene and other toxins.

Fracking contaminates water supplies with toxins, endocrine disruptors and radium. It also contaminates soil, which in CPV’s case is the precious “black dirt” of southern Orange County, some of the most fertile in the U.S.

The Millennium fracked gas pipeline needed to feed the plant would cross and risk valuable farmland and 60 sensitive streams and wetlands. Yet the protected designation for the area was blocked by extraordinary efforts of New York State Senator John Bonacic, who took campaign contributions from CPV and whose son happens to work for CPV and Millennium.

Millennium and CPV tried to preempt New York’s permitting authority over the pipeline. The state attorney general’s office complained Millennium repeatedly sought to “strategically compartmentalize” the project “to engineer FERC authorization for piecemeal construction activities.”

Meanwhile, in an end-run around the New York's power plant siting laws, lead permitting authority for CPV plant construction was given to the small, local town planning board instead of the New York Department of Environmental Protection (NYSDEC). The town was promised jobs and development, though in fact the plant would create just 23 permanent jobs and most of its modest economic benefits would accrue out-of-state.

All this unfolded against the background of a high-profile bribery scandal. Disgraced Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco and others in the Cuomo administration are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from CPV to advance the project. Plant permitting and construction forged ahead preemptively, even while an investigation and prosecution of the corruption behind it continues.

Such a project should never have gotten off the drawing board, let alone granted permit after permit, amid apparent violations of law.

New York has one last opportunity to stop it. It can still reject the last permit CPV needs to operate, a water quality certificate for the Millennium feeder pipeline, which by rights it shouldn’t get. But the tangle of private and political agendas makes it far from certain whether Cuomo will uphold the public interest against the combined power of the industry and the feds. NYSDEC has until the end of August to decide. After that FERC will preempt its authority and ram CPV through.

Cuomo’s credibility as a would-be environmental leader matters for his presidential aspirations. But as’s Bill McKibben said, “It makes no sense to say you’re banning fracking in New York, and then build a power plant that demands that you go frack somewhere else to do it. There may be old-style corruption at the bottom of this CPV plant, but there is definitely a kind of intellectual corruption at the top of it.”

Neither kind of corruption can be allowed to stand.

James Cromwell is an Oscar-nominated actor and activist. Pramilla Malick is the founder and chair of Protect Orange County and a 2016 NY state Senate candidate. The authors were recently released from prison for a civil disobedience action protesting the CPV plant.

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