Last week, the University of Texas at Austin announced that “three nationally renowned leaders in science, public service and higher education” would review the industry-friendly report issued in February by its Energy Institute that has been the center of a controversy over the gas industry’s influence on academia and, by extension, public policy. That day, PAI revealed that review panel chairman Norman Augustine has his own industry ties, formerly serving on the board of directors of fracking company and UT benefactor ConocoPhillips and currently receiving payments from the company for $3.1 million of deferred stock awards.
According to last month’s press release announcing the review, the panel was convened “to review the scientific credibility of the report and to examine any related issues that the panel members believe are relevant,” a point Andrew Revkin reiterated in the comments of his New York Times blog post on panel chairman Norman Augustine’s industry ties: “Keep in mind this is not an ethics review, but a review of the findings in the report, as the university stated in July.”
A recent Buffalo News article about New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s shareholder activism through the state’s pension fund mentions his interactions with the natural gas industry. According to the Buffalo News, DiNapoli “has been pressing natural gas companies involved in hydrofracturing to provide him with risks of their drilling practices, the kinds of chemicals used and to take into account community opposition to drilling plans.” DiNapoli told the News he would continue this activism “regardless of what may still come to pass” as Cuomo poises himself to lift the fracking moratorium.
While the State’s considerable investment in fracking companies puts the comptroller in a good position to “pull corporate strings” with these companies, these investments amount to New York State’s use of public pension money to bankroll the risky and unpopular practice. Fracking, which in its high-volume and horizontal form is under a moratorium in New York, presents a significant risk to air and water, and has been questioned as a speculative bubble by insiders and energy analysts. Further, as pointed out in the New York Times, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C., which guaranteed corporations’ right to make electoral expenditures with campaign treasuries (substantially financed by New York’s and other public pension funds), raises the concern that public employees are being forced to fund pro-fracking lobbying via mandatory contributions to the Common Retirement Fund deducted from their paychecks.
New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has gotten a major assist during his first year and a half in office from an outside lobbying group known as the Committee to Save New York, a coalition of corporate elites that advocates for austerity policies and specializes in taking to the airwaves to heap praise on the governor and his agenda. Despite making a massive lobbying blitz in 2011 and being an extremely powerful political force in New York State, the Committee has refused to disclose its donors and will not be required to disclose its past donors by New York’s ethics commission, raising questions about who, exactly, is backing the group and funding what the New York Times has referred to as Cuomo’s “secret slush fund.” This being the sort of group we love to dig into here at LittleSis/PAI, we have done extensive research and recently published our findings in the report “The Committee to Save 1% NY.”
At least one controversial policy fight gave a fundraising boost to Cuomo’s Committee in 2011. According to the New York Times, the casino gambling industry donated millions to the Committee at the same time Cuomo was shaping his stance on casino gambling legalization. The Cuomo administration reportedly urged casino industry lobbyists to route large contributions to the Committee, which subsequently ran ads praising the governor. The Cuomo administration and the Committee had long denied coordinating, but reversed this claim in the wake of the Times bombshell, possibly after a blitz of untraceable Blackberry messages.
Has the fracking controversy provided a similar fundraising opportunity for Cuomo and his Committee? New York State enacted a moratorium on fracking in 2010 and is currently in the process of deciding whether to allow the controversial practice. The Cuomo administration has signaled that it will allow fracking in some areas of the state, and at least one fracker’s son is certain that Governor Cuomo has seen through the “smoke and mirrors” of the anti-fracking movement and is set to come down on the side of industry.