It seems Governor Cuomo has decided to sell out Upstate New York and its workers by putting natural gas development on hold. Reports claim Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. convinced Cuomo the health risk was too great and he should await the results of a Pennsylvania health study for which there is no scheduled deliverable. It suggests there is a lot more to the story and, of course, there is.
Governor Cuomo didn’t put his former brother-in-law on the Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Committee out of familial obligations and he’s not listening to him now for anything other than strictly political reasons. RFK, Jr. is simply a convenient mouthpiece on which to blame a delay engineered by others. There are two plausible explanations for the delay; one is a matter of speculation by many folks and the other is a more likely scenario based on the actions of the Governor as opposed to his words.
Cuomo, it appears to many, is afraid to make a decision because it might interfere with his run for the White House in 2016. Numerous reporters have recently suggested this is at the root of his wavering. Interestingly, I received an e-mail from a supporter in the know back in September 2012 suggesting the New York State Department of Health would be the fall guy for a strategy of delaying any decision until after the Governor’s 2014 reelection, when he wants to roll up a big majority in the state to launch his Presidential bid immediately thereafter. Of course, in New York this requires he not alienate any of the environmental special interests who are part of his natural constituency. So far, everything that supporter predicted has been falling in place and, therefore, this has to be viewed as a credible explanation and very possibly part of the Cuomo thinking.
Still, does a governor trying to establish a record on which to appeal to a national audience and who has to demonstrate economic leadership, surrender policy to the extremist environmental views of his ex-brother-in-law, a man of highly questionable authenticity on the issue? Deferring to such an individual is hardly the ticket to that kind of reputation. There has to be a better explanation, and there is. The Governor’s political dilemma is being exploited by some extremely powerful special interests – New York’s blue bloods – and the result is potentially devastating to the hopes of blue collar New Yorkers who desperately need help.
First, let’s dispense with the false narrative about waiting on a Pennsylvania health study. That “study” is actually a data collection project and there are no scheduled deliverables in the way of reports. Moreover, despite the repeated attempts to sell this as a Marcellus Shale health study, it is not specifically targeted at the industry. When representatives of the Geisinger, Guthrie and Susquehanna health systems and the natural gas industry sat down in November to discuss the project, in fact, there were repeated assurances it would be a “collection of data looking at the population in general.” A careful reading of the Degenstein Foundation’s grant announcement confirms this, as these excerpts verify (emphasis added):
The majority of the funds from the grant will be used to underwrite growth of the necessary data-gathering infrastructure. Funds will also be utilized to help develop strategic studies of the data gathered. Additional institutional partners are anticipated to help fund this effort….
Guthrie Health and Susquehanna Health will collaborate with Geisinger in the planning and execution of the study, including the development of a health surveillance network intended to capture, assess and report on the patient-level data secured by Geisinger, Guthrie and Susquehanna via electronic health record, and make this data available for research purposes. The goal is to create a cross-disciplinary, integrated, and sharable repository of data on environmental exposures, health outcomes, and community impacts of Marcellus shale drilling – the first systematic longitudinal study to do so. Some of the potential health effects that are likely to be investigated first include asthma, trauma and cardiovascular disease. Preliminary results of data analysis may be released within the next year, while other aspects of the research will unfold over five, 10 or 20 years.
The project depends upon securing other sources of funding and notice there is no schedule for producing any reports whatsoever other than a vague suggestion some “preliminary results of data analysis” might be released within the year.
So, what we have is an information-gathering effort with incomplete funding that is proceeding on a hope and prayer with the goal of establishing a database of information for future research, primarily by others, that may not produce any definitive results for a decade. Meanwhile, we already have several studies and analyses completed by others, including New York State’s own Department of Health (DOH), indicating there are no significant health issues and every indication the economic development of the region via natural gas extraction will lead to improved health outcomes.
Any suggestion this work is an appropriate prerequisite for action by New York, therefore, is nothing more than a lame, but convenient, excuse. Given the nature of the Geisinger project, there is no chance whatsoever of there ever being a conclusion, which is, of course, precisely what a politician hoping to ride a fence into the sunset would want, isn’t it? Multiple players will be analyzing the data in different ways for decades, always ending with the academic trademark recommendation for further research. It will be the precautionary principle on steroids, otherwise known as public policy paralysis, despite a wheelbarrow full of evidence it is safe to proceed, as DOH concluded a year ago in a suppressed report.
If non-issues connected with health are but a convenient excuse, and they most definitely are, what is the cause for delay? Well, the first clue is the name of the person who leaked this story about RFK, Jr. and Cuomo. It was, apparently, RFK, Jr. himself and he is quoted at the end of the story complementing Cuomo for doing what is supposedly the hard task of delaying decision, setting up the narrative for the entire story. Cuomo has subsequently denied any such conversations took place, and no one denies nice things said about them unless the party saying them is trying to set them up, which, it would seem, is exactly what RFK, Jr. is doing – trying to embarrass Cuomo into doing what he wants.
What does RFK, Jr. want? His shifting positions on natural gas, wind and other matters might indicate this is difficult to know but, of course, we do know because he was put on the governor’s hydraulic fracturing advisory committee (a fact missing from most stories on this matter) along with two senior attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kennedy, too, is a former senior attorney for NRDC, meaning three senior attorneys from one organization ended up on a committee of 13 (later expanded) to advise the governor on hydraulic fracturing. How is that possible? Asking any attorney for advice on petroleum engineering is a bit strange, but asking for help from three of them from a single entity? That suggests the NRDC has an unusual stake in the matter and unusual power, which, of course, it does.
The NRDC, in fact, is also represented by the individual who these three NRDC attorneys are supposed to advise; Joe Martens, the DEC Commissioner. Martens was President of the Open Space Institute when selected as Commissioner and, of course, was a founder of the Catskill Mountainkeeper, both organizations, along with NRDC, were created by John Adams, a close associate of the Rockefeller family and its mega land interests in the Catskills. Adams’ son, Ramsey, of course, is the Catskill Mountainkeeper in the flesh and received his salary from the Open Space Institute until the Mountainkeeper constituted itself as a separate non-profit corporation. The elder Adams also simultaneously served on the boards of the Mountainkeeper, the Riverkeeper, the Open Space Institute and NRDC.
So, not even counting the other natural gas opponents on the committee, there were effectively four top level NRDC representatives dominating any policy discussions. And, that’s not even counting other friends of NRDC on the committee, friends such as: Robert Hallman of the NY League of Conservation Voters (where Kennedy, NRDC founder John Adams and other NRDC/OSI leaders serve as Directors and who curiously resigned as a Cuomo advisor amidst all this controversy); Mark Brownstein of Environmental Defense Fund (where OSI Executive Director Christopher Elliman sits on the Advisory Board); Robert Moore of Environmental Advocates which proudly advertises itself as part of the “The Clean Water Not Dirty Drilling team” that also includes Catskill Mountainkeeper and NRDC. Altogether, they still account for half the committee, even after it was expanded to supposedly achieve more balance.
The pervasive influence of the NRDC on this issue within New York is very evident from this table depicting current and former associations of key representatives of NRDC, the Open Space Institute and their sister organizations (click on image or here for pdf version):
This table only begins to describe the interlocking relationships among these individuals and organizations or the ties that exist between them and Governor Cuomo, not to mention Attorney General Schneiderman. Notwithstanding these relationships, they are only a start to the explanation for what is taking place. Truly understanding it requires a visit to Lew Beach, New York, where the counties of Delaware, Sullivan and Ulster come together and many of these folks own land, along with other friends in high places (e.g., CBS News anchor Dan Rather). The place might be described as high society in the hinterlands.
John Hamilton Adams, founder of NRDC, is from there and he introduced Laurance Rockefeller, Jr. to the area long ago. The Rockefellers have long been funders of the NRDC, of course, so this was only a natural extension of that relationship. The story is told in this New York Times article, relevant excerpts of which follow:
Mr. Rockefeller is the guiding force behind a development named Beaverkill Falls – 36 homesites with more than a dozen houses in place, an inn that acts as a focal point and clubhouse, tennis courts, skiing and hiking trails and, above all, rights to fish the Beaverkill. The development is on 645 acres and may be the forerunner of several others in the area since Mr. Rockefeller has purchased about 5,000 acres in the region.
”I regard our actions as the most economical way to recycle the land back as closely as possible to what it had been a century ago,” Mr. Rockefeller said. In effect, he and like-minded friends have been engaged in an unusual form of private rezoning. They have been putting strict environmental covenants on their land, and he has been assembling old farms and small holdings into larger tracts and then dividing the land into homesites that he sells after imposing covenants restricting the uses of the property.
The land recycling effort at the extreme western end of Catskill State Park apparently is the only major project of its kind in the Northeast. The only town is the hamlet of Lew Beach, 100 air miles and a three-hour drive from midtown Manhattan.
Mr. Rockefeller, who is an environmental lawyer, said he first went to the Beaverkill about a dozen years ago as the guest of John H. Adams. Mr. Adams owns a farm in the valley and is the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a law firm that specializes in conservation.
While a ”peaceful valley” is indeed emerging again, so too is one of the most environmentally conscious land projects in the northeastern United States. The development has attracted such names as Mr. Rather, Federal Judge John M. Walker Jr. and Seymour Schweber, the electronics entrepreneur, as well as lawyers, conservationists and, as Mr. Rockefeller put it, ”several journalists whose faces do not grace the Evening News.”
”My house in the Beaverkill is the only bit of privacy that I have left,” said Mr. Rather through a CBS network spokesman, declining to discuss his acquisition further.
More forthcoming, however, was Benjamin Wolkowitz, an officer in a Wall Street investment house who lives in suburban New Jersey. He said he and his wife, Lois, purchased a homesite there because ”it’s like buying into a land bank.”
‘‘But the valley seems to be evolving into a beautiful park for rich people in which you have the wealthy and the people who wait on them,” Mr. Wulff went on. ”Improving the area is all to the good, but land values and taxes have gone up and the average man can’t afford to live here.”
Others were more blunt, objecting to this characterization of the area and the value of the gentrification instigated by Rockefeller:
But rural blight caught up with the 25-mile-long Ulster County valley several decades ago as farming petered out, mobile homes and shacks proliferated on tiny plots and the area seemed headed toward the same sort of economic, social and esthetic disintegration that beset much of Appalachia.
Dan Rather’s comment about the desire for privacy and the investment banker’s joy at “buying into a land bank” say a great deal about the motives for the Rockefeller and NRDC’s involvement in the Catskills. They have been busy establishing a secluded preserve for their own enjoyment for a quarter-century now. Being able to empty out the area of mobile homes and shacks and buy up property inexpensively is integral to the project. The potential bonuses and royalties associated with natural gas leases on properties owned by locals, by contrast, threatens the project.
Also integral to the effort are the complex relationships among the various entities detailed above, as well the State of New York, the Beaverkill Mountain Corp., the Beaverkill Valley Land Trust and its Johnson Hill Associates, Inc. subsidiary. Land is routinely swapped among them, with sales to the state in some instances at premium prices (see excerpt below from 2008 financial statements of Open Space Institute), while, in others, the state is brought in to help finance the acquisitions, as when a $25 million loan was made from the Empire State Development (funds typically reserved for job creation) to the Open Space Institute in 2007. The stock of Johnson Hill Associates and certain properties owned by the Beaverkill Land Trust were also pledged as collateral for a loan from the Laurance Rockefeller, Sr. estate, which is just one example of the interlocking relationships among all these parties. One might even say it’s the Standard Oil trust reborn.
It’s all legitimate conservation on one level, of course, but just so happens, in many cases, to also preserve the land around the homes of the principals, creating that “land bank” in the Catskills and the seclusion they all desire, free of all that “rural blight.”
But, that’s the rub, isn’t it? The NRDC and friends aren’t really engaged in a battle against natural gas, but, rather, a strategy of keeping it out of the Catskills where it might interfere with their own plans for that land bank. Emptying out the Catskills and lowering property values is what works for them, after all, and they have the power to intimidate everyone from the supervisors of Catskill towns who dare to pass pro-gas resolutions (by coordinating an attack on them in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office) to the Governor himself.
It doesn’t work so well for residents who must somehow earn a living and pay the taxes on what they own, though. While RFK, Jr. pretends to represent them and mouth concern about their health as he does the bidding of the NRDC, they know their health is inextricably linked to economic development. That’s why landowners, union members and other blue collar workers favor natural gas development – overwhelmingly so. Meanwhile, the NRDC gives its imprimatur to natural gas development in Illinois. That’s no threat to their Catskill plans, of course. The double-standard reveals everything about their motives and what’s going on in New York and it has nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with health or Geisinger’s endless study. RFK, Jr., in fact, probably advanced that theory on his own to leverage his ex-brother-in-law in the NRDC direction.
It’s a sad state of affairs. The Governor is subjecting the welfare of middle-class landowners and union members to the whims of some of America’s wealthiest households by letting NRDC and friends dominate a hand-picked advisory committee and a decision-making process. Worse, while this is taking place a legislatively mandated and balanced advisory committee required under Section 23-0311 of the New York State Environmental Conservation Law has been ignored, the terms of members being allowed to expire with no replacements made, as if it no longer existed or was required. The legislation specifically provides that:
The commissioner shall seek the views of the board on matters within their scope of concern and shall specifically request the board’s participation at an early developmental stage of any new rules, regulations and policies being contemplated or developed. In addition to such other duties as the commissioner may suggest or the board on its own volition may choose to undertake, the board shall:
a. Review and comment on the criteria to be used by the department in selecting abandoned wells for plugging or replugging.
b. Review and comment on proposed rules and regulations and department activities affecting the industry.
c. Recommend to the governor, the commissioner, and other state agencies program directions or modifications related to the development, operation, and regulation of the oil, gas, and solution mining industry.
None of this is being done, of course, while RFK, Jr. and his other NRDC friends continue to manipulate the situation from their perch on a committee created by a governor who can’t seem to make up his mind. Sooner or later, though, he will have to decide and it will a choice between the blue collars and the blue bloods. The future of rural New York depends upon who he chooses.