Outgoing DEC leader Joe Martens leaves legacies

Times Union | August 1, 2015 | Column by Fred LeBrun

After four and a half years of hard labor in the current Cuomo administration as Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, Joe Martens at 59 is at last a free man.

That's a long sentence, particularly since it was self imposed. He tried to get out earlier but was kept in place by his deeply characteristic, one might even suggest excessive, loyalty to his employer, who wasn't ready to let him go.

Before anything else, my perspective on Martens. I've known Joe for decades and observed him many times perform marvels on a range of environmental causes working from both the public and private sectors, with a remarkable sensitivity for differing views, good humor and an unerring moral compass.

Deservedly he's widely respected across the environmental and political spectrum for his savvy and integrity, and was ideally suited for the commissioner's job by virtue of his education and long experience in the legislature, Adirondack Park Agency, the Open Space Institute, and as deputy secretary for the environment in the Mario Cuomo administration. His credits go on and on, and will resume again now that he's returning to the Open Space Institute after Labor Day. Not that he didn't have a pretty good run on bread and butter issues like Adirondack land acquisitions and recreational access among others in his DEC tenure.

The public could not have gotten a better man for the job during these past four years. I further believe that even when results fell short, such as with the so far unresolved appropriate oversight of oil rail and barge traffic through the state, or only modest gains in the environmental protection fund during flush times, results would have been far less satisfactory without his presence and voice.

All that said, we'd be kidding ourselves to suggest that except for the day-to-day operation of the agency — which admittedly still encompasses quite a universe — he was really the man in charge. Even his long anticipated departure was tightly controlled by the governor. He wouldn't voice specifics during a recent exit interview — he remains too loyal to the governor for that — but it was easy to sense his frustrations working for the most opaque, top down, micromanaging administration in the state's history. Administration in this case equals governor.

Andrew Cuomo could not have lured a better front man or water carrier than Martens. The administration got a boost in the public eye with Joe at the helm of the DEC that they have not seen in any other state agency. Not exactly the best and the brightest are attracted to the top of state service these days. The governor's reputation has seen to that.

Yet Martens has survived state service under Andrew Cuomo, with most of his reputation and loyalty to Cuomo, father and son, intact. A pretty neat balancing act. As for a legacy item, it has to be the state's first of its kind ban on natural gas drilling high volume hydraulic fracturing, aka hydrofracking.

''It took all four years to accomplish,'' Joe observed. In fact, two days after the ban became official, he was finally allowed to publicly announce his resignation from office.

Initially, when Martens arrived in February 2011, the governor favored drilling and Martens says he was convinced the DEC could effectively regulate the process as well.

By the following August, Martens and the DEC were ready to announce a pilot project in the Southern Tier, in an area that was avidly pro-fracking. ''But the administration was not ready to commit to it. They just weren't ready,'' Joe said. Perhaps contributing to the governor's reluctance was the pending threat of litigation from deep pockets environmental stewards. Instead, the state Health Department was tasked with providing the appropriate public health study, which was at that time lacking.

''Over time, there was an evolution — not an epiphany — but an evolution in my thinking on the subject. Credit the public involvement and 268,000 comments, or whatever it was, many of them very knowledgeable and quite specific. So as the executive committee sifted through these, one restriction after another was raised, because fracking could crop up in any number of different environments. Then the question arose whether, even with these layers upon layers of restrictions to drilling, the public health and environmental protection could be assured. We decided finally it couldn't,'' Joe recalled. So the recommendation was for a ban, even though unquestionably the actual decision up or down was the governor's.

But Joe was quick to note that the ban is only for now, and for the current technology. ''That could change. Look at the current debate over using gelled propane instead of water, '' he added. It's a proprietary process that eliminates the huge volumes of fresh water needed for drilling wells, and also the need for disposal of malevolent wastewater.

There are those advocating gelled propane as we speak, although it is most unlikely to succeed for the time being it because among a host of reasons it is not currently cost effective. For some time now, methane gas prices have been so low due to a glut in the market, even conventional water-based hydrofracking for new wells is not cost effective.

Which means there was little lobbying pressure from the industry opposing a hydrofracking ban once it was proposed, and probably a factor why the ban happened at all.

''Economics had a lot to do with it,'' Joe conceded. And he nodded in assent when I mentioned that evolving geological data showed less attractive gas fields in most of New York's Marcellus shale than originally thought, which is also about economics.

''But it was more about timing. Timing is everything.''

flebrun@timesunion.com • 518-454-5453

http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-local/article/LeBrun-Outgoing-DEC-leader-Joe-Martens-leaves-6419699.php

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PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.