You wouldn’t expect such a hopeful smile from state Sen. Tony Avella, but there it is.
The Democrat from Queens is animated as he discusses hydrofracking in his office next to the state Capitol.
Avella is one of 33 Senate Democrats in a house with 63 members. But because of a deal worked out between five Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and the Republicans, his fellow “traditional” Democrats remain in the minority, without the perks of their number or the ability to bring bills to the floor for a vote.
Last session, when the Republicans alone were in charge of the chamber, Avella’s antidrilling legislation never saw the light of day. Republican spokesman Scott Reif says that until the state issues a decision on the issue, fracking bills will be considered premature.
“Currently we are awaiting the completion of the reviews by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health, and ultimately the governor will make a decision on whether or not this should move forward,” Reif said. “Until that happens, we are taking a wait-and-see approach.”
Avella is hopeful that the rhetoric around the new coalition matches reality. If it does, Sen. Jeff Klein, the new co–temporary president and leader of the IDC, will not only have the juice to bring minority party bills to the floor but also usher in Albany’s version of glasnost.
“If you believe what the new majority coalition is saying, that Jeff Klein and the IDC can bring bills to the floor for a vote when he’s in charge, then, yes, I think there’s a shot,” Avella said.
A week into the new session, Avella has already reintroduced a package of fracking-related bills, one of which calls for an outright ban. Three members of the IDC are among the co-signers.
The big question is how far the IDC will push on the issue, and it may not be a long wait to find out.
The state’s long-debated hydrofracking blueprint, the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, may be released as soon as mid-February. Under state law this 1,500-plus page document must be made public at least 10 days prior to the DEC’s final decision on fracking, which could come as early as Feb. 27.
The release of the SGEIS will not mean that high volume, high pressure hydraulic fracturing will start immediately. Groups like Catskill Mountainkeeper are expected to file several lawsuits. It is also clear that lawmakers want to weigh in on fracking.
Last session Assembly members introduced over a dozen fracking-related bills, while senators from both sides of the aisle sponsored legislation on the issue. The bills ran the gamut from clarifying local zoning laws to ensuring drillers are fully insured against liability. Like Avella’s fracking ban, some of the bills have been reintroduced this year, including a mandated health impact assessment that the Assembly passed last session.
Avella isn’t alone in looking at the IDC with a mixture of expectation and something he calls “Show me what you got.”
Environmental groups like Environmental Advocates of New York, who have been angered by the convoluted regulatory process, are also watching the IDC.
“I’m excited to work with the Senate leadership to get bills to the governor’s desk to protect our water and communities from fracking,” said Katherine Nadeau, the head of EANY’s water and natural resources program. “Governor Cuomo’s proposed plans won’t provide the protections we need, so there is a desperate need for the Senate to step in and step up.”
Eric Soufer, the IDC’s spokesman, said the conference is waiting for the DEC’s decision.
“There have been many valid concerns raised by the environmental community—especially when it comes to the way hydrofracking has been implemented in neighboring states—which is why our members are eagerly awaiting the results of the governor’s comprehensive health review of the process,” he said.
The IDC could be in a tough spot. Some of its power derives from the fact that its agenda, in large part, mirrors that of the governor’s. But Cuomo has been tight-lipped on hydrofracking.
Oil and gas attorney Tom West speculated on the political dynamics at play.
“The administration is still looking for at least one of the environmental groups to stand with the governor when he comes out with his decision for fracking,” he said. “But I don’t think any of the groups are going to support drilling in New York State. I think it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
According to West, the IDC has to think pragmatically.
“My sense is that these hydrofracking issues are not high on [the IDC’s] priority list,” he said. “They are focused on issues like minimum wage, women’s rights and gun control. Look, there have to be some concessions to Republican issues, so I would think this will be one thing they would give up.”
But during a radio show in January, two Democratic senators in the minority, Avella and Liz Krueger, were optimistic enough about the role the IDC could play to begin calculating votes:
“There’s a [fracking] moratorium bill that David Carlucci just sponsored,” Krueger noted. “It has Klein, Savino, Valesky … as co-sponsors. So you have four of the five IDC. I can guarantee you, you would get a huge number of Democrats.” She added, “We know for a fact that [Republican State Senator] Greg Ball and I don’t agree on that much, but we are absolutely opposed to the dangers of fracking.”
“I personally believe this will be a real test of the IDC,” Avella said. “If they really have the authority to bring bills to the forefront.”
“If…” There’s that note of challenge again from Avella.
The IDC’s spokesman doesn’t take the bait. “When it comes to such a major issue, no single legislator is going to determine its fate,” Soufer said. “It will likely be the subject of a robust discussion among all the legislative leaders.”
While it’s possible a moratorium bill could amass 32 votes by pulling from all three conferences, the real challenge is whether the bill makes it to the floor. That’s a bet no one is willing to take.
Karen Bulich Moreau of the NYS Petroleum Council acknowledged the political uncertainty of the situation.
“You know,” she said. “I wish I had a crystal ball.”
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Department of Environmental Conservation, Eric Soufer, Greg Ball, Hydrofracking, IDC, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, Karen Moreau, Katherine Nadeau, Liz Krueger, Scott Reif, SGEIS, Tony Avella