Governor Cuomo Appoints New DEC Commissioner

On January 4, Governor Cuomo announced the appointment of Joseph Martens as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  Since 1998, Mr. Martens has served as President of the Open Space Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of scenic, natural and historic landscapes.  During Mr. Martens’ tenure, the Open Space Institute has engaged in a significant preservation campaign involving land acquisition and the placement of conservation easements.  Mr. Martens’ appointment as DEC Commissioner, which is subject to confirmation by the State Senate, has been warmly received by environmental advocacy organizations in New York State.  As of this writing, business organizations have not  publicly weighed in on the appointment.

Should he be confirmed, Mr. Martens will take over an agency with a growing mandate but shrinking resources.  DEC lost over 200 staff members through layoffs at the end of 2010, several months after approximately 200 other DEC staff left the agency by opting to accept an early retirement package.  DEC will have to address increasing responsibilities and demands, particularly in areas such as climate change and brownfield redevelopment, despite these significant losses of staff.

In addition, Mr. Martens will inherit responsibility for dealing with the controversial issue of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an emerging technique for drilling underground wells to recover natural gas.  The process involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals to release gas deposits from underground shale.  These deposits are primarily located in the Marcellus Shale, an underground formation in upstate New York.  However, the drilling could affect the Catskill watershed, which supplies drinking water to New York City.  Drilling a well to recover natural gas from underground deposits in New York State requires a permit from DEC.  On December 13, former Governor David Paterson issued an Executive Order instituting a moratorium on permits for horizontal hydraulic fracturing wells until at least July 1, 2011.  The new Governor and DEC Commissioner will have to decide how to proceed on this issue:  continue with the moratorium, rescind or modify it, or take an entirely different direction.

It should be noted that Mr. Martens gave a speech on the issue of hydraulic fracturing last year, in which he urged DEC to move slowly on a permitting program for horizontal wells.  He noted that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study on the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on health and the environment, due to be released in 2012.  “What’s the downside of waiting for the results?”, Mr. Martens asked in that speech.

image via Open Space Institute