Albany After Dark

What’s worse than a lame-duck vote on a bill to impede Marcellus development in New York? A lame-duck vote in the middle of the night.

It turns out your mother was right all along: Nothing good ever happens after midnight.

Of course, when it comes to state legislature in Albany, it’s not entirely clear that much good happens before it either. Monday night, at around 11:30 p.m. EST, the New York State Assembly signed-off on legislation seeking to install a six-month ban on “the issuance of new permits for the drilling of a well which utilizes the practice of hydraulic fracturing.” The late-night, lame-duck vote follows passage of the same bill in the New York State Senate in August – remarkably, a debate that was held even later in the evening than the Assembly had to endure this week.

Which got us to wondering: Why do you think it is these guys insist on taking up sweeping moratoria bills in the dead of the night, while the vast majority of their constituents are fast asleep? Although we can’t say for sure, one of the reasons may be that the legislation in question is so slapdash in its construction that, if it actually were to ever take effect, virtually all oil and natural gas development in New York could come to a halt – irrespective of which formations are being targeted. Our friends at ProPublica (!) made precisely this point back in August when the State Senate initially passed the bill:

But the language in the final bill … does not differentiate between the different ways hydraulic fracturing can be used. It appears to be a blanket prohibition that would also stop hydraulic fracturing in New York’s many vertical oil and gas wells and would apply to drilling in geologic formations outside the Marcellus.

Just in case you’re scoring at home, there are more than 6,700 producing natural gas wells currently in service in New York, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and about 5,000 producing oil wells. Just about every one of them requires fracture stimulation technology to remain a viable source of energy. And they also require workers. So how many folks might lose their job if this bill successfully initiates a coup de grâce on oil and gas in New York? According to the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA), the impact would be far from insignificant – especially at a time when more than 900,000 New Yorkers are already out of work:

[IOGA] warned that the legislation as written could halt hydraulic fracturing already going on elsewhere in the state. … If that were to happen, the group said, it could jeopardize 5,000 industry jobs and the $1 million in annual revenue that the state collects from drilling permit fees. … “The governor must be made to understand the vast unintended consequences and act quickly to reject this needless legislation,” Brad Gill, executive director of the trade group, said.

It’s a sad turn of events for a state that’s been producing natural gas since the second-term of the Monroe administration – and especially difficult to understand when one considers New York consumes more natural gas than every state in the Union save California and Texas. Maybe that’s why its per-capita CO2 emissions are the lowest in the nation as well. But you know what? Ninety-five percent of New York’s natural gas has to be pipelined-in from someplace else, mostly the Gulf Coast and Canada. And if this bill ends up being signed into law, it’d be tough to imagine that number not climbing up to 100 percent pretty soon thereafter.

But wait a second: Maybe we’re being a bit too pessimistic in appraising the actual impact of this legislation. And maybe we’re being a bit too complimentary of the opposition in suggesting this bill represents a dispositive (and fatal) development at a time when DEC is still actively working to finalize its draft regulations.

Take a look at the language of the moratorium bill once again: “This act shall …expire and be deemed repealed on May 15, 2011.” So basically we’re dealing with a bill that bans the development of the Marcellus at a time when the development of the Marcellus was already effectively halted, pending the release of DEC’s final regulatory framework.

And of course, no one believed that DEC was going to release that final document before May anyway – not with a new governor coming in, and an entirely new leadership team installed atop the agency. “We already have a de facto moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale, and as far as I’m concerned, this really was a big mistake from the beginning.” Another comment from Brad Gill and IOGA-NY, right? Actually, this statement comes from anti-shale activist Walter Hang in today’s Ithaca paper. For once, Walter, we agree with you.

The indefatigable Tom Shepstone, friend of Energy In Depth and an active exponent of responsible shale development in PA and NY, shares his analysis of what the New York Assembly vote actually means in practice:

[Shale gas opponents] are obviously ecstatic but I’m not at all sure they should be.  All evidence is that New York State is still acting in a pro-gas fashion … and a 6-month moratorium is essentially meaningless, as it will take that long for the … regs to go into place and a new Governor to put his stamp on the drilling process in New York.  This is, indeed, classic New York State politics – demagoguery that masks actions of precisely the opposite effect.

Practical effects aside, though, the message that Albany sent this week is that “New York State is closed for business,” according to Democratic Asm. Michael Benjamin, who represents a district in the Bronx and views the responsible development of the Marcellus in the Southern Tier as an important stream of revenue for the state and a potential source of good-paying jobs for his constituents.  And of course, he’s right. But then, the other side’s got good arguments too, right? Here’s how Asm. Robert Castelli, Republican from Westchester County, justified his pro-moratorium vote to the Ithaca Journal: “Our environment should not be reducing the protection of the environment to the level of a political football.” Unfortunately, no English translation was available.

So what happens next? Unfortunately, the outgoing governor appears poised to sign this ramshackle bill into law later this month, hoping against hope that this single act initiates a rapprochement with the special interest groups that blasted him apart following the abrupt dismissal of DEC commissioner Pete Grannis. And hey, there’s already some evidence out there indicating this may be a smart move for him politically. Keep in mind, the bill hasn’t even been signed yet. But that didn’t stop activists from Catskill Citizens for Safe [read: “No”] Energy from projecting what Gov. Paterson’s legacy will be if it is:

By signing this bill, Governor Paterson will cement his reputation as the first Governor in the country to protect his citizens from the precipitous onslaught of dangerous and poorly regulated shale gas extraction.

Yeah, we get it: tough economic times out there, and who can blame a man who’s just looking for his next job? But you know who else is looking for work right now? More than 900,000 of the governor’s fellow New Yorkers – some of whom could extricate themselves from the unemployment rolls tomorrow if the development of the trillion-dollar resource known as the Marcellus Shale was allowed to commence today. Isn’t it about time for Albany to stand up and represent those folks’ interests as well?

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