The following is part of a Gotham Gazette series, The Cuomo Record, examining incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first term as he seeks re-election heading to Election Day, November 4.
Governor Cuomo has attracted attention throughout his tenure for delaying action on hot button environmental issues. Nowhere is this more glaring, of course, than the question of whether to permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has been a looming issue his entire term.
Cuomo’s inconsistent and unclear response to issues such as fracking, or whether to allow an Albany facility to begin heating crude oil arriving from the Canadian tar sands, is the tip of the very complicated iceberg that is the incumbent Democratic governor’s record on the environment.
If re-elected, Cuomo faces profound environmental challenges, such as the mounting impacts of climate change and the state’s deteriorating water infrastructure. Cuomo’s policy choices will have a tremendous impact on a range of issues, from brownfields clean-up to air quality.
Depending on who you ask, the Governor’s first term shows a real path forward as the state seeks to develop a 21st century energy supply and delivery system, and adapt to a changing climate. Alternatively, he is seen as fundamentally unsupportive of environmental protection in the sense of consistent and aggressive enforcement of the state’s environmental regulations.
In its endorsement of Governor Cuomo this week, the New York League of Conservation Voters cited “the Governor’s record on clean energy and climate resiliency — two of the most complex yet critical sustainability challenges facing our state.” Cuomo has made substantial progress on these issues, they said, “even at a time of fiscal restraint.”
The governor does not shy away from strong environmental action. His administration is quietly, but effectively working to close the Indian Point nuclear power facility. The State has also asserted its right to control large water withdrawals – by companies and municipalities – from the Great Lakes and local rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater.
But Cuomo is also open about the fact that his lead environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), serves two masters: protecting the ecological and public health of the country’s third most populous state; and promoting economic development.
The governor’s ongoing strategy to balance the two objectives – environmental protection and economic development – raises important questions. State support for a new solar photovoltaic manufacturing facility in Buffalo, for example, shows the great potential of linking environmental and economic goals.
But what happens when one goal conflicts with the other? Laura Haight, Senior Environmental Associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) responded flatly, “clearly the environment is not a priority for this governor.”
A Red Flag
The governor’s recent attempt to utilize or “raid” $500 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund for the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge raised an enormous red flag for many environmental groups. Those funds were earmarked for water quality improvement projects, they point out.
“What is it ideologically that this administration thought it was OK to take a half-billion dollars that was dedicated to reducing water pollution and instead redirect that to a bridge,” asked Peter Iwanowicz, the Executive Director of Environmental Advocates, an Albany-based watchdog group.
Iwanowicz served in the Spitzer/Paterson administration as deputy secretary for the environment, and then as acting commissioner of the state DEC.
“[The loan attempt] really strikes me as a clear indication of the ideology of this administration, having other priorities than a strong environment,” Iwanowicz argued. He added that he sees a “lack of deep commitment that existed in previous administrations to ensure strong environmental protections.”
Iwanowicz said the difference in approach to environmental protection between Andrew Cuomo and the governors that directly preceded him is like “night and day.”
In response to such criticisms, Emily DeSantis, the state’s chief public information officer for the environment, wrote, “Governor Cuomo has a strong record of advancing policies to protect New York’s land, air, and water while increasing the state’s reliance on clean energy. Any claims otherwise are simply wrong on the facts.”
She added: “Over the past four years, Governor Cuomo has committed more than $17 billion in funding for transformational environmental and clean energy programs, which is more than Governor Pataki did over 12 years.”