New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is fulfilling a campaign pledge to oppose natural gas development in his state, challenging the DRBC and now upstate elected officials whose only sin is to disagree with him. The AG’s opposition to a resource used to heat 56% of New York homes seems to be an exercise in intimidation.
The New York State Attorney General’s office has done something remarkably cynical. It has joined the NRDC in a campaign of intimidation aimed at local officials who happen to disagree with the AG’s and NRDC’s positions on hydraulic fracturing and natural gas development.
We reported earlier on the NRDC effort to silence the voices of three tiny communities in Broome and Sullivan Counties using its multi-million dollar legal staff. Now, along comes Attorney General Eric Schneiderman employing the power of the state to engage in his own bullying efforts directed at some of the same towns, as well as others. Is it an abuse of power? You be the judge.
The issue, of course, is precisely the same one raised by the NRDC; whether town officials improperly coordinated with landowner groups in enacting pro-gas resolutions or were, as landowners themselves, conflicted to the extent they should have recused themselves from voting. That there is no legal issue here worth the attention of the AG is obvious. Otherwise, no local official who is a landowner could ever vote on anything, a point made very effectively by Attorney Scott Kurkoski in an article reporting on the AG’s action.
“I do get concerned at times when someone says ‘Well, you’re a landowner so you shouldn’t make decisions on these issues,’” he said. “What town board member in this state is not a landowner?…Who doesn’t have an interest?” – Scott Kurkowski
This is, instead, an attempt to intimidate other local officials from passing pro-gas resolutions and, thereby, effectively countering the moratorium initiatives of natural gas opponents allied with the AG. Letters apparently went out in October to several towns questioning their actions, almost precisely at the same time the NRDC filed extensive Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests with three towns.
Coincidence? Well, let’s just say there are no coincidences in politics, especially given the fact the AG ran for office on a platform that included opposition to natural gas development. During his campaign, in fact, he said this:
Neither the state nor the federal government has determined that hydrofracking is a safe practice, and Eric will sue to make sure that no drilling takes place until it is.
Apparently that sort of prejudice and possible coordination with NRDC in piling on upstate rural officials is perfectly ethical in the AG’s world despite the following from Section 74 the New York State Public Officers Law (Code of Ethics) to which he is subject (emphasis added):
An officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should not by his conduct give reasonable basis for the impression that any person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties, or that he is affected by the kinship, rank, position or influence of any party or person.
The New York Post noticed, back in June of last year, that Schneiderman was already intent on favoring his friends among environmental activist organizations such as NRDC. Listed among significant donors to his 2010 campaign, for example, is Jay Halflon, the rainmaking lawyer associated with the Sustainable Markets Foundation, which, like NRDC and 350.0rg, is aligned with the Rockefeller family and actively involved in opposing natural gas development. Other major donors included: NRDC Chair Daniel R. Tishman; NRDC Vice-Chair, Patricia Bauman; the Frack Action PAC; and Open Space Institute (OSI) Treasurer Paul J. Elston (OSI is, effectively, a NRDC spinoff).
Moreover, the AG actually recommends homeowners go to the NRDC website for “information on offsetting your carbon footprint” – an unusual deference to a special interest organization in a very unusual document one would expect to come from the Department of Environmental Conservation, not the AG’s office. Schneiderman also did the NRDC’s bidding in suing the DRBC, on the former’s inartful theory the natural gas regulations the latter is developing somehow demand compliance with the environmental review requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act.
Then there is Schneiderman’s ex-wife, the super-connected Jennifer Cunningham, who ran his campaign (and also advised Cuomo), donated funds to it and now is a partner in SKDKnickerbocker. This powerhouse communications/political firm represents the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, which promotes a host of renewables competing with natural gas; including biomass, geothermal, solar and wind.
It also proudly included the following statement from Environmental Advocates of New York in one of its news releases:
So while New Yorkers are debating the dangers of industrial gas drilling and fracking, we should be harnessing a true clean energy source–offshore wind.
These are just the obvious financial and other connections Schneiderman has to the folks leading the charge in opposition to natural gas development. One wonders how he rationalizes advancing his own economic interest (securing campaign funds) while decrying the efforts of town officials simply looking out for the welfare of the communities they represent and of which they are a part. Perhaps, as the State’s top law enforcer, he believes he doesn’t need a reason, but intimidation tactics of the sort being used in this instance are hardly worthy of the Attorney General of New York. Perhaps someone should FOIL his office for communications with NRDC folks.
It is also exceedingly curious why Schneiderman seems to only notice and question local officials who take pro-gas positions, while ignoring others with much clearer potential conflicts. Perhaps the most obvious of the missing is Town of Ulysses Supervisor Roxanne Marino, who, together with her husband Robert Howarth (yes, that Howarth), runs the Howarth/Marino Lab at Cornell University.
This lab is the foundation from which Howarth has conducted his widely criticized methane emissions studies, detailed here. Be sure to notice the old picture of a field of oil derricks, as if this were representative of modern natural gas development, indicating more than a little bias. More importantly, pay attention to who is listed as funder of the work and the lab – the Park Foundation, the $315 million special interest group that funds all things anti-gas. Here’s what they paid for, as described at the top of the web page:
Promoters of shale gas view it as a plentiful bridge fuel that will allow society to continue to rely on fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to other fossil fuels. In April of 2011, we published a study challenging the assumption that shale gas has a low GHG footprint.
So, whose interests is Roxanne Marino representing as Supervisor; the citizens of Ulysses, or the Park Foundation that funds her lab’s (and her husband’s) studies? Her town enacted a ban on hydraulic fracturing last year, at which time she gave, as a reason for the action, the excuse that “The costs are too high, the risks too great, and the regulations are simply inadequate.” Was she speaking for herself or Adelaide Park Gomer, the grande dame of the Park Foundation who used similar over-the-top language to describe the mission:
It is heartening that people are beginning to realize that if frackers are invited into New York State, the only recourse we’ll have is to hit the streets and use civil disobedience. Nothing short of a total ban can save us from this unfolding tragedy! We believe that New York must become the first state to ban fracking, taking a leadership role that the rest of the country can then rally behind. There is nothing less than our future at stake.
One is tempted to say the Attorney General ought to be asking some questions of Marino or other members of the Ulysses town board, but that would miss the point, as voters who elected her surely knew what they were getting and had a right to choose who best represented their views – just as the residents of pro-gas towns do.
There are other examples as well. Consider the moratorium enacted by the Town of Avon, where Supervisor David Lefeber is a large farm owner. Although the uses are compatible, Lefeber Farms competes with Lenape Resources for farmland. Lefeber has also been a member of the Livingston County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, which adopted a plan stating the following (emphasis added):
Infrastructure such as roads, water, sewer, electric, gas and telecommunication services are critical to the success of the agricultural sector but can also play a role in accelerating non-farm development.
Lefeber has, too, been an advocate of conservancy acquisition of farmland development rights, which keeps property available for his industry at low cost. Admirable though this policy may be, it clearly reflects an interest in land that is potentially in conflict with use for natural gas development insofar as costs of purchasing or renting land for farming purposes. Property with a gas lease is always going to cost more unless mineral rights are split off. Using Schneiderman’s apparent standards, is not Lefeber precisely in the same position as those the AG is questioning? This is another illustration of the Korkoski rule – once you go down the road of defining land ownership and its associated rights as creating a conflict in making public policy policy decisions, there is no end to the foolishness.
Then there are those landowners in places such as Dryden, Middlefield and around the Finger Lakes who have advocated bans and moratoriums precisely for the reason of protecting their property values against what they mistakenly believe will negative impacts from natural gas development. One of our readers, wrote yesterday to make this observation:
What the antis forget is that if some of the landowners on town boards have an interest in leasing their land, others have an interest in not having land leased. They vote to protect the property value of their own homes. To say that those who own land and have or might lease have a conflict of interest begs the question. Who does not have a conflict of interest? Those who are saying they want to protect their water supply? Is that not an interest they are dedicated to protect? Why only go after the non-antis for conflict of interest. Don’t our opponents have conflicts of interest by the same measures?
The reader is exactly correct. Take Linda Lavine, for example, who is a Town Board member in the Town of Dryden, one of the two natural gas banning towns being challenged in court over their decision. Here is what she said as a candidate:
Our homes in Dryden are worth three-quarters of a billion dollars. Their value is now undermined by leases that limit mortgage availability, and will drop further if fracking occurs. Will the gas companies pay us for $300 million in lost home values?
While she is demonstrably wrong in her assumptions, her statements indicate she is motivated by a very specific pecuniary interest about which she is passionate. How is this interest not identical to those of the landowners Schneiderman chooses to question?
What all this illustrates is not that Marino, Lefeber or Lavine have done anything wrong. Rather, it shows the absurdity of Schneiderman’s position, which has nothing to do with the law or justice. It’s all about winning through intimidation while doing the very same thing of which he accuses others – only worse. Schneiderman’s interests are far from pure. They are directly related to satisfying the special interests of those who pay his campaign bills. No one’s going to stop that either, but we can at least note the irony.