In late October, I wrote about the disturbing trend of politicians copping out of taking public policy positions by saying, “I am not a scientist.” Well, yesterday we heard Governor Andrew Cuomo complete the sentence in a way that I applaud. He said, “…I’m not a scientist. So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”
He did just that, and the acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, summarized the scientific evidence for the Governor. Zucker pointed out that there are significant risks and many unknowns regarding the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling and production using high volume hydraulic fracturing of shale resources. To quote from the New York State Department of Public Health report, “In assessing whether public health would be adequately protected from a complex activity such as high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), a guarantee of absolute safety is not required. However, a minimum, there must be sufficient information to understand what the likely public health risks will be. Currently, that information is insufficient.”
The Public Health department report outlines a set of risks from shale oil and gas development through high volume hydraulic fracturing, mirroring those noted in UCS workshop reports and recent publications. Our position has been that decisions should be based on scientific evidence and that baseline evaluation and comprehensive monitoring programs must be in place in order to make science-based decisions. It seems Governor Cuomo listened to the public health scientists in his state and agrees.
Some have criticized the Governor for taking time to make a decision. But isn’t that just what he should do with complex issues that will have consequences for the people of his state for generations to come? Whether one is considering the benefits (e.g., jobs, revenue) of shale oil and gas production in New York, or the risks to public health (e.g. air and water pollution, community impacts), once drilling proceeds those impacts are likely to last for decades. So, Mr. Cuomo waited for an expert review. And the review recommended caution until better information is available.
Certainly there is more to decisions on public policy than solely the scientific evidence. But, that evidence, or lack of sufficient evidence, is sometimes enough to give a clear path for decision-makers and the public. Filling the information gaps pointed out by Dr. Zucker is not an insurmountable task. But it will require industry and governments to be more forthcoming with data, and making solid efforts to research the impacts, rather than deny that they may even exist.
Where public health is concerned, we need to have solid scientific evidence for decision-making. Governor Cuomo’s path, asking the experts and heeding their advice, is just the right way to tackle decisions such as this one. He’s not a scientist – so he’s listening to the people who are.