You are here

New York energy policy now an issue in Clinton-Sanders contest


ALBANY — Hillary on fracking. Bernie on Indian Point.

Energy policy in New York has entered the national conversation as the media focuses on the state's April 19 presidential primary, one of the most competitive in years.

In recent days, the candidates have weighed in on the closure of Indian Point and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fracking ban, and advocates are now making an aggressive push to get the campaigns of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to come out against the proposed Constitution pipeline.

The pipeline would run from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County in upstate New York and would deliver natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale in the Keystone State. Opponents have urged the state to deny necessary water quality permits for the project, which would effectively kill it.

Sanders is clearly appealing to the anti-fracking movement, which helped drive support for Zephyr Teachout in her unlikely challenge to Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. In national debates, Sanders has said he would not support fracking, while Clinton has given a more-nuanced response, describing how she would regulate it more strongly.

Environmentalists in New York are a significant voting block with a history of being active at the polls, said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental activist and founder of the Pace Environmental Law Center. He said he had written a letter to both campaigns to ask the candidates to take a position on the Constitution pipeline, but has yet to hear from either.

“I think we should get both Hillary and Bernie to take a stand on Constitution,” he said. “There’s 50,000 people in New York state that identify themselves as fracking activists. It’s one of the most powerful environmental, or any kind of public movement, that we’ve ever seen in New York.”

Protestors plan to “bird dog” the candidates to press them to oppose Constitution at every event in the state in the next 10 days, said Walter Hang, an Ithaca-based activist. He said environmental groups will continue to “crank up the heat” until they get a response.

“This could really be a game changer because the race is so incredibly tight,” he said. “The candidates are trying to get every single vote that they can.”

It's likely that the environmental vote will be split in the Democratic primary, but not evenly. Hang guessed that more anti-fracking activists — the so-called "fractivists" — support Sanders, but said many others are longtime fans of Clinton from her days as a U.S. senator representing the state.

And though Cuomo has endorsed Clinton and acts as her surrogate, his energy policy is more in line with Sanders' positions. Cuomo banned fracking and Sanders is strictly anti-fracking. Cuomo, one of the first to endorse Clinton's presidential bid, wants to shut down Indian Point, as does Sanders. Clinton urged a "realistic" look at whether that was possible.

Other environmental issues figure to play a role in the campaigns. The Sanders campaign is planning a rally on clean energy and and climate action in Kingston for Saturday, with a voter canvas to follow. Clinton included a passing reference to the Hoosick Falls water crisis and the need for clean water protections in her stump speech outside Albany this week.

That same day, Sanders made his call for closing Indian Point, calling it a “catastrophe waiting to happen.” He singled out the recent discovery of faulty bolts as evidence the plant was dangerous.

Clinton, in response, gave a more complicated response after a dig at Sanders just learning about the issue. She said she supported greater safety protections at Indian Point, but said it was important to be “realistic” about shutting down a plant that provides about a quarter of the power needs for the New York City area.

Sanders’ position is popular with environmental groups, who have pressed for the plant’s closure for many years. Still, the prominent climate scientist James Hansen, who gained fame after sounding the alarm over global warming in the 1980s, criticized Sanders and said shutting down the plant would increase the need for more fracked gas.

“For the sake of future generations who could be harmed by irreversible climate change, I urge New Yorkers to reject this fear mongering and uphold science against ideology,” he said in a statement.

Clinton’s comments on Indian Point hardly constituted an endorsement of the plant. But Indian Point opponents are planning a rally on Monday in Chappaqua, where Clinton lives, because she did not call for an outright closure.