ADVERTISEMENT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) The Middletown Times Herald-Record on recent developments involving the future of hydraulic fracturing in New York.

Aug. 16

The state has not yet decided on the future of hydraulic fracturing but there are intriguing developments in the industry that should have foes smiling if not yet cheering.

Reuters reported last week that Chesapeake Energy Corp., the company with the bulk of leases in the Southern Tier, has dropped its effort to extend many of them because of state delays in approval.

This comes at the same time that Forbes is reporting more investors shorting the company stock, essentially betting that the price will drop, and while four high-ranking executives are leaving the company in a management shakeup.

Chesapeake still has a lot of contracts and many leases that can be renewed automatically. The decision to drop the extension on some where landowners were suing to get out of the arrangement could be a legal maneuver to avoid needless spending on litigation. Or it and the other news concerning the company, combined with the declining price of natural gas, might indicate that by the time the state gets around to making its final decision on the safety of hydrofracking and necessary regulations, there might not be much interest left in starting to drill.

At the same time, there is a new political and ethical focus on the oil and gas industry and their friends in Albany. A coalition of good government groups is asking the new corruption-fighting Moreland Commission to look into how pro-fracking donations might have influenced legislation.

Common Cause of New York looked at campaign finance records and found that 183 advocates of shale-gas drilling have given more than $14 million to legislators and political parties since 2007. Sixteen gave more than $250,000 and one lobbying firm topped the list with more than $750,000.

Leading the list of those receiving this money was a not-surprising name, Sen. Thomas Libous, the Binghamton Republican who is not only a power in the Legislature but also represents the area where most drillers would like to operate.

While Gov. Cuomo was not making predictions about how or when the final ruling will come out, he did seem to be going out of his way to tamp down some of the high expectations, especially the ones coming from the industry, about the ultimate effect of drilling on the upstate economy.

On a radio interview this week he said that it is "misleading" for advocates to suggest that "hydrofracking in and of itself would be the answer for the upstate economy."

Polls still show New Yorkers are split, with those in favor going up a few percentage points and those who say they do not know enough about it dropping back a bit. In the meantime, there is no word on when the state Health Department will finish its long-overdue review of the state Department of Environmental Conservation assessment of the health impacts of the practice.

No matter which way that decision turns out, there is bound to be a renewed focus on hydrofracking and it now appears that there are some in the industry who might not consider this next fight one worth waging.

___

Online:

The Watertown Daily Times on state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's criticism of the New York Power Authority.

Aug. 14

A news release issued last week by the Office of the New York State Comptroller (OSC) criticized the New York Power Authority, its hiring practices, the state's long-standing practice of taking millions of dollars from the authority each year and its travel planning operations. Unfortunately, it does not appear the author of the news release looked at Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's report very carefully, painting the authority in a negative light when the actual report was straight forward and non-judgmental.

The report carefully points out that the OSC relied solely on financial records delivered to the Authority Budget Office. It was not an audit where the OSC examines the books of the authority.

The report, dissimilar from the news release, focuses on the state's use of NYPA funds to help balance the state budget. In 2008, the state took $366.2 million from NYPA, raiding at the time the reserve to cover NYPA's residual costs to clean up the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant in Oswego County, which it no longer owns. The next year, the state took $222.5 million.

Last fiscal year, the amount taken fell to $21 million. The funds supplied by NYPA for state purposes this last fiscal year were the lowest in the 10 years described in the report. The OSC report essentially defends the actions of the transfer of $90 million this year, arguing that the money is no longer solely used to balance the budget but "will be utilized to support energy-related initiatives of the state or for economic development purposes."

The OSC raises good questions about to what degree the state's authorities should siphon funds to the state's general fund. The report says "transfers from the authority to the state may diminish NYPA's capacity to provide low-cost power to businesses and nonprofit organizations and could be considered a hidden tax on utility customers who pay NYPA charges."

What the news release misses is that the state owns NYPA, and NYPA's payments to its owners are no different than any other public or private utility in the nation. That question is worthy of debate.

However, the news release was critical of NYPA's employee compensation, claiming too many people made too much money. The comptroller is not making a fair comparison.

NYPA is unlike any other state agency where salaries are lower. NYPA operates a complicated electric power generation system with 16 power plants interconnected to the state transmission grid.

NYPA's hydroelectric power plants at Massena and Niagara Falls provide a stable, environmentally clean source of baseline power to New Yorkers at extremely low rates. And it does so safely.

As the largest public power utility in the country, NYPA must compete with power companies, engineering firms and other government power generators for a limited supply of highly skilled engineers and transmission system workers. Men and women in these professions are sought after because of their knowledge and expertise, and they command higher salaries than other government agencies pay. The salaries are lower than investor-owned electric utilities such as National Grid and Con Edison.

What the news release ignores is the challenge NYPA faces in attracting a workforce to replace the men and women who will retire from NYPA in the next five years.

The OSC's news release also paws over old audits of NYPA to criticize the use of an airplane. However, the details in the report reveal that the source of the complaint was a 2001 audit and that NYPA changed its practices in response to that criticism from 12 years ago. Today, NYPA operates one small airplane to transport engineers quickly around the state to manage the power generation assets. It only takes a second to go online and find out how many commercial flights are available every day to Massena where the Moses Saunders Power dam generates 1,000 megawatts of power.

The comptroller's news release generated lots of headlines. But there appears to be no surprises in the report, which, if properly evaluated, might provide a baseline to debate the wisdom of the state taking excess funds from authorities who are required to invest heavily to maintain services New Yorkers have come to depend upon.

___

Online:

The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on Attorney General Eric Holder announcing changes in sentencing low-level drug offenders.

Aug. 19

The war on drugs hasn't done much to stop drug use in this country far from it but it's done a commendable job for the prison industry. Since the "war" was launched in earnest three decades ago, state and federal prison populations have soared fivefold, costing taxpayers $80 billion a year.

Many of those prisoners are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders people who would benefit more from treatment than incarceration. So U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement of a major shift in federal sentencing policies, aimed at reducing the automatic imprisonment of thousands of low-level drug offenders, is welcome news. It's not just a more humane way to deal with the issue, but a more economically feasible way.

The big problem are laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, based on the quantity and type of drugs they're arrested with, and sentencing guidelines that allow for little discretion.

Yes, drug offenders are lawbreakers and deserve to be punished, but the mandatory minimums are often much longer than necessary to prove the point or to deter. If these people didn't hurt anyone in the commission of their crimes, and seem unlikely to if they're released (i.e. they weren't gang members), then locking them up for decades seems excessive.

Indeed, a number of states, including New York, have seen the light on mandatory minimums and, as a result, are spending a lot less money incarcerating low-level drug offenders. The number of New Yorkers imprisoned for nonviolent crimes has reportedly dropped 62 percent since 2000, enabling the state's prison population to drop roughly 2 percent per year. At $55,000 a year per prisoner, that represents pretty good savings.

The federal prison system, currently at 140 percent of capacity, could benefit tremendously from Holder's proposed changes. So could tens of thousands of prisoners, including many elderly and infirm ones who pose little threat to public safety.

Legislation in Congress aimed at reducing mandatory minimums and giving judges greater latitude in sentencing reportedly has bipartisan support, and would address this problem regardless of who the president or attorney general is. Even better.

___

Online:

Newsday on the lack of oversight by Congress and the courts of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.

Aug. 16

The more that leaks out about the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance programs, the harder it becomes to take any comfort from President Barack Obama's assurances that the privacy of the American people is being respected.

The latest damning revelation is that the NSA violated privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority 2,776 times in one year while sweeping up records of Americans' phone calls and intercepting the Internet communications of people outside the country. That's the alarming picture that emerged from a May 2012 internal NSA audit that the Washington Post published based on information from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, now living in Russia.

The oversight provided by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress is insufficient because both rely on the NSA to report any unauthorized surveillance. But when the agency inappropriately intercepts the phone records and emails of Americans, inadvertantly or because of technical glitches, while targeting suspected foreign terrorists, it considers that "incidental," and not a violation that must be reported.

The surveillance court is the first line of defense against abuse, but its chief judge, Reggie B. Walton, said it can't independently verify how often the NSA breaks the rules, or confirm that the violations were just mistakes. Reports to Congress are scrubbed of details; even the number of Americans whose communications are illegally intercepted is not reported. So Obama's plea for trust based on the "strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people" isn't so comforting.

NSA snooping too often goes beyond what the law allows, so more rigorous oversight is imperative. The time has come to reset the balance between security and privacy.

___

Online:

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on the Obama administration and Mideast policy after the coup in Egypt.

Aug. 15

The Egyptian military's Tiananmen-like crackdown on protesters last week underscores the challenges the Obama administration faces in prevailing on the nation's leaders to find a path to true democracy. But that has become a long-term consideration. In the short term, the U.S. and the international community must pressure Egypt's military leaders to step back from their deadly campaign, lift a state of emergency, and move to restore normalcy.

President Obama straddled the line between condemnation and engagement Thursday, correctly canceling upcoming joint military training between the U.S. and Egypt. The exercises became unthinkable after Egyptian forces slaughtered hundreds of their countrymen last week in violent suppression of demonstrations supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

Still, the president declined to suspend the roughly $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt, at least for now. While condemning this week's bloody actions, Obama declared the U.S. would remain engaged with the Egyptian military leadership. Such a stance preserves access to potentially beneficial diplomatic channels.

The administration's renewed efforts to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in neighboring Israel demonstrates the multifaceted challenges the region has always presented. The 2011 Arab Spring and subsequent events have shown that, while there is widespread hunger for broader human rights throughout the region, factional, religious and cultural hurdles make the road to reforms long and hazardous. Nations like Libya and Tunisia remain divided, violent and far from peaceably governed. Syria is wracked by civil war.

Egypt could follow unless Obama, European Union leaders and the U.N. redouble efforts diplomatic and otherwise to urge its leadership to restore some semblance of civil sanity.

Democracy can be pursued another day; right now the Middle East needs more bastions of stability.

___

Online: