NRDC's Legislative Priorities for New York in 2011: Fracking, Solar & More

Now that Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have worked out an on-time new budget (an event as likely to happen as a spate of alien abductions in the Legislative Office Building) –  the state government turns its attention to the passing of bills into law. As Albany moves into legislative overdrive, below is an overview of NRDC’s top priorities.

I should first point out that while there were some losses for environmentalists in the budget battle, conservation was relatively unscathed – a relief after repeated crippling cuts in recent years. The Governor deserves credit for standing up for state environmental and health priorities where his predecessors could not.

Notably, the budget spares the Environmental Protection Fund the cuts it had sustained over previous years and maintains it at the same level as last year.

One disappointment was the decision to halt the state’s $10 saltwater fishing license requirement – a move that will cost an estimated $1.7 million and $1.4 million in matching federal funds every year. That money is sorely needed for marine conservation and ocean management programs that help keep New York’s fishing good, but are already suffering from decreased budget and personnel issues. We are hopeful that this modest fee will kick back into effect in 2013, which is contemplated under the budget agreement.

But now that the process is over, we can turn our focus to some of the key legislative priorities for NRDC and some of our allies:  

Keep dirty drilling out of New York

Across the country, natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – has been linked to contaminated drinking water and a variety of other public health and environmental impacts. As this controversial industrial process increasingly becomes the center of a fierce national debate, the gas industry has its sights set on drilling in vast portions of New York State, including the New York City watershed.

This poses an unacceptable risk to clean drinking water for millions of New Yorkers. Inadequately regulated gas development has resulted in air pollution, habitat destruction, health threats, and impacts to other precious natural resources in other parts of the country.

The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are conducting separate studies on fracking, both of which are needed to answer critical questions about the risks of this heavy industrial activity and whether New York can safely proceed with drilling. Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo has set an arbirtrary deadline of “on or around” June 1, 2011 for completion of the draft environmental review. This is a seriously insufficient amount of time to study the risks associated with fracking, and therefore the first order of action is to get rid of the deadline and let the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation know that it has as much time and resources as required to get it right.

NRDC is calling on New York officials to take all the time they need as they consider drilling, rather than caving to pressure from the industry to rush through the on-going environmental review process, on which much critical work is still needed. We’re urging the state to complete a satisfactory, science-based review – not bound by any deadlines – before any new drills break ground. New Yorkers’ health and safe drinking water is on the line.

We are also supporting several pieces of legislation that would put necessary protections in place – and can be implemented – without waiting for completion of the environmental review process. Most significantly, we are supporting a bill (A. 7013) that would repeal a regulatory exemption keeping waste generated during gas development in New York from being defined as “hazardous waste.”

Currently, toxic wastewater and solid waste from fracking are permitted to be received and handled at conventional municipal wastewater treatment facilities and landfills – the same places that handle wastewater and trash from our homes – even if they otherwise meet the characteristics of toxic waste under state law. And drilling wastes are already being brought to facilities from across the border in Pennsylvania, where drilling is rampant. Such facilities are not equipped to handle the heavy metals, volatile organic chemicals, salts, and radioactivity that contaminate these wastes – meaning they can make their way into our rivers and drinking water supplies, as a recent New York Times piece documented.

This important measure, introduced by Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Robert Sweeney, would require DEC to revise its regulations so that gas development wastes are subject to the same transportation, storage, treatment, and disposal requirements as hazardous wastes from all other industrial and commercial activities in New York.

Boost New York’s solar industry, creating thousands of jobs

New York has what it takes to lead the new solar economy, which is why NRDC is working to pass the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act of 2011. The bill – a much-needed blueprint for solar development in the region – encourages utilities and other electric providers to gradually increase the amount of solar power they produce – until it reaches at least 2.5 percent of their sales by 2025.

By setting up this framework, we can attract businesses in the burgeoning clean tech sector to set up shop in our state – creating 22,000 job opportunities and billions of dollars that we can re-invest in our neighborhoods, local businesses, schools, and infrastructure.  And obviously it would benefit the environment, reducing emissions enough to equal about 2.7 million cars taken off the road.

NRDC is calling on the Assembly and Senate to pass this bill (S. 4178 and A. 5713) in this session. Without it, we’re passing on an enormous opportunity to curb harmful air pollution in the state and literally sending jobs and investments in our economy out the door. And our neighbors will reap the benefits instead (New Jersey is already leading the way in the region).

Keep industry from drying up New York’s lakes and rivers

NRDC is also urging legislators to pass a bill that would establish a major permitting program for industries removing more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from state waters. Large-scale water withdrawal can have serious impacts on water resources, water quality, and important marine ecosystems in the state, including the Great Lakes. 

The Water Withdrawal bill (S. 3798 and A. 5318A) would help New York – for the first time – regulate water-intensive commercial and industrial activities, including hydraulic fracturing and water-bottling operations. It would also set up a water conservation and efficiency program, which is necessary to protect tourism, recreational activities, and the state’s high quality fresh water.

This legislation – introduced by Assemblyman Sweeney and Senator Grisanti, the respective chairs of each house’s Environmental Conservation Committee – is urgently needed to help New York State better protect its priceless and irreplaceable water resources.

Promote smarter, greener development in our cities & communities

In September 2010, New York enacted the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act – a comprehensive law that will help revitalize our communities are ensure they are growing and operating in a manner that results in multiple environmental and quality-of-life benefits, while also achieving economic development goals and reducing infrastructure costs.

The act requires state agencies and authorities, prior to approving or funding any public infrastructure project, to prepare and file a statement finding that the project is consistent with smart growth principles. Under the new law, each covered agency also has to appoint an advisory committee to promote smart growth goals.

This law – along with other measures that integrate State economic development with sustainable transportation, climate, land use and housing goals – will make sure New York is moving forward sustainably. This means we’re promoting communities that provide increased transportation options, greater access to needs and amenities, healthier air and water, protection of our open spaces, and so much more.

NRDC will work with the State to help make this happen and ensure these policies and efforts are implemented effectively.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. NRDC is actively working on everything from scaling up building efficiency in New York City, to promoting bike lanes and other sustainable transportation, to implementing green infrastructure initiatives.

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