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Urban Land Institute's "Balanced" Panel on Fracking

While a ban against high-volume horizontal fracturing in New York State remains in place pending more research into environmental and health effects, the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday, calling for his help in pushing their fracking agenda. From the plea, signed by IOGA executive director Brad Gill:

The science is in. The public can be assured that exploration for natural gas in New York is — and has been — safe, good for our environment and for our economy. Our New New York must now join the nation and embrace the expansion of responsible natural gas development. We need your help.

The letter is “respectfully submitted” on behalf of over 200 companies identified as members of IOGA of NY. Among them, Ecology & Environment (E&E), the local consulting firm that was hired by the state in 2011 to produce a report on the economic impact of fracking, if the practice were to be allowed in New York. The DEC touted the positive numbers subsequently produced by E&E, while environmentalists criticized the study’s lack of scope.

Meanwhile, the logo of the Urban Land Institute of Western New York was affixed to “Hydrofracking: An Informational Presentation,” scheduled for Wednesday, April 24 at 6pm at the Hotel Lafayette. The event was sponsored by EnergyMark, LLC; Lumsden & McCormick, LLP; and Palmerton Group, “A Division of GZA.”

All three event sponsors were among the companies that signed on to IOGA’s letter to Cuomo. Gary Marchiori, the president of EnergyMark, was one of the speakers at the event. EnergyMark was awarded a contract last April Fool’s Day to sell fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to six State University of New York campuses.

Miche C. Needham, CPA, a principal at Lumsden McCormick, was another one of the speakers. According to the event flyer, she specializes in oil and gas taxation.

As an added bonus, another speaker was Dennis Holbrook, executive vice president and chief legal officer of Norse Energy Corporation. Which would be an impressive title, except for the fact that Norse Energy is in bankruptcy. Holbrook was famously caught bragging at a gas industry event in Houston about how he bamboozled the Buffalo News—”a Warren Buffet-owned paper”—into writing pro-fracking editorials to influence public opinion in New York. When Artvoice wrote about his hijinks, Holbrook’s son Ryan—also a lawyer at Norse Energy—began posting anonymous comments on our website, criticizing our coverage. When he was identified, he refused to answer the phone. So we wrote about that.

Until last week, the third panelist at this “informational presentation” was Rita Yelda of Food and Water Watch and WNY Drilling Defense, who was being offered 10 minutes to begin the show.

Yelda was invited to speak by Holly A. Akers, project engineer at Benchmark Turnkey, an environmental engineering firm. When asked about the event last week, Akers explained that she was a member of the Urban Land Institute. When asked if there was a membership list for the Urban Land Institute, she explained that there was a local list, but that it was password-protected—accessible by ULI members only. She said she was not sure why that was, and explained that the New York City chapter of ULI was “more serious” than the Western New York affiliate.

She said the “mentor” of the Western New York affiliate of ULI was David Stebbins, vice president of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, which specializes in urban brownfield redevelopment. Stebbins also declined to share the membership list of the local ULI affiliate, saying that policy was dictated by ULI in New York City. When it was pointed out how lopsided the panel was for this “informational presentation,” Stebbins asked for suggestions on who else could join Yelda in expressing environmental concerns in regard to fracking. This was last Friday, five days before the event. Apparently, the anonymous local branch of ULI doesn’t know many environmentalists.

Akers described the ULI of Western New York as a “group of younger professionals, 30 to 35 years old.”

“Our group is made up of a lot of real estate professionals and developers,” she said. “We have people from Uniland and Savarino. It’s not so much a political statement as it is a real estate perspective on a controversial topic.” She said that Marchiori, for example, would be “trying to stay neutral on the topic,” even though his company has a vested interest in fracking New York.

Akers said that Holbrook would be speaking to the pro-side of fracking. As if he is geared to do anything else. She was aware that his company is in bankruptcy. “The reason we’re using him is more for informational purposes. We need someone to speak ‘pro.’”

“Urban Land is an educational institute and what we try to do is put on, for local members, events that we think would be informative,” said Stebbins last Friday. “We do stuff on real estate projects. A lot of it is done by individuals like Holly in this case, who put a program together—she’s in one of our young leader groups.” The Urban Land Institute “isn’t taking a position on this at all,” he added.

On Monday, Stebbins said that they had chosen Don Duggan-Haas of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) to help balance the lopsided panel. Here is an example of his work:

We believe that the Marcellus cannot be understood in isolation and are striving to not only provide evidence-based understanding with as little bias as possible (that is, we will not advocate for or against drilling in the Marcellus Shale), but also help our audiences to investigate deeper questions than the question many in the Ithaca-area are initially drawn to. Residents justifiably focus on the question: Is this bad for the environment? Without contextualization, the answer is invariably “yes.” A more appropriate context-dependent question might be, “Is this better or worse for the environment than what we are doing now, or might reasonably do in the near future, to meet our energy needs?”

A noted anti-fracking lawyer commented that “PRI is a decidedly pro-industry organization in my opinion—although they would say they were neutral.”

This is how ULI WNY provides another environmentalist voice on the panel?

No one at ULI NYC has returned calls since last Thursday. On Monday, after sending several emails to ULI NYC as well as the main ULI office in Washington, DC, two email responses arrived. The first, from acting executive director of ULI NYC Stephanie Wasser, reads as follows:

I believe you did speak with Dave Stebbins who returned your call. I am in meetings today and tomorrow in Philadelphia and Dave leads the Buffalo satellite. I am happy to discuss ULI, its mission, and it’s policy re: keeping its members contact information private. If you would like to attend the program on May 2 we can help you register, and I am available on Wednesday to speak with you.

I replied that I did not ask Stebbins for members’ contact information. I simply wanted to know who they were. She has not replied to that. I also have no idea what event she’s referring to on May 2.

Later yesterday, I received an email from Trish Riggs, vice president for communications for ULI in DC:

I understand you had a question about a program being hosted this week by ULI Western New York. This is one of thousands of events on topical land use and urban development issues that are hosted throughout the year by ULI and its district councils and national councils around the world. ULI programs include speakers representing a broad range of viewpoints; a speaker’s participation in any program does not suggest that the Institute endorses or supports a speaker’s view. Please note that you are welcome to attend the April 24 event as a member of the media. I will contact the district council to confirm your complimentary registration.

Amazing how many gas industry lawyers/lobbyists and real estate personnel can crowd into a room at the Hotel Lafayette to hear a presentation under the auspices of the Urban Land Institute, right here in Buffalo, which was the first urban area in New York State to ban fracking, back in 2011.

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