NEW YORK -- Joe Martens has flipped between government work and environmental advocacy more than once in his adult life. As the Empire State continues to ponder its most visible energy dispute in decades, that career track has some calling for his scalp.
Martens is head of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, making him the regulator closest to a lingering, years-long tussle over whether to end a moratorium here that prevents hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. He is also the most prominent representative on the issue for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat with national aspirations who could have much to lose if the state gets the decision wrong.
But Martens hasn't always been a regulator. Before taking the post in 2011, the University of Massachusetts graduate worked in the private sector for 13 years as president of the Open Space Institute, which acquires land to conserve it. Before that, he served in the Mario Cuomo administration as a deputy secretary for energy and environment in the early to mid-1990s.
The time at OSI has lately come under the microscope of an oil and gas industry that is working overtime in Albany to see the fracking moratorium lifted. That's because Martens used his position at OSI to help launch a group called Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is currently one of the most vocal organizations campaigning to keep shale developers out of the state.
Mountainkeeper has been aggressive in its bid to counter an election-year push by industry -- led in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- to crack open the ban. Most recently, the group started airing a radio spot featuring board member and Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams calling on Andrew Cuomo to reject drilling when the DEC issues its decision later this year.
That Martens was a key figure in the creation of Mountainkeeper in 2007 is not in dispute. He helped found the group and served as its "advisory chairman" until he left OSI last year to return to government.
But whether that position means Martens came into the fracking debate with a bias against the drilling technique is an open question. To some in industry, the connection is a little too close for comfort.
Jim Willis, editor of the pro-fracking industry publication Marcellus Drilling News and a resident of Binghamton, recently blogged that the Mountainkeeper connection is a "bombshell" that could shake up the debate. That charge was no surprise coming from Willis, who has been trying to stir up attention on the matter for months, labeling Martens "an unabashed environmental extremist" on his site for positions taken before his time at DEC.
As proof, Willis references a 2010 speech at Union College in which Martens said fracking -- in which chemical-laced water and sand are shot underground to release trapped hydrocarbons -- could be "the most difficult and daunting" regulatory challenge to ever hit the state.
"If nothing else, it seems to me, the department should go slow," Martens said at the time. "The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon operation in the Gulf clearly demonstrated that the unexpected can and will happen. It is also clear that the gas industry has not been as candid as it should have been with regards to the potential for problems."
That position mirrors Martens' leadership at the DEC over the past year, during which time the department has postponed a final decision on the moratorium to pore over more than 70,000 public comments on fracking. The DEC under Martens seems to have approached the matter methodically and thoroughly, though all signs now point to Cuomo and Martens soon saying "yes" to permits on a limited regional basis.
Despite this, Willis defended his assertions in an email exchange, saying Martens launched "arguably one of the most anti-drilling groups in New York." In other words, Willis believes Martens is the figure within the state government most likely to be arguing against permits or trying to limit their scope, all while Cuomo juggles pressure to create jobs and tack to the center as he eyes a presidential run in 2016.
Martens "dedicated himself to preserving open spaces (i.e., no development of any kind, certainly not drilling) for some 17-18 years," Willis said. "And now virtually overnight he's pro-fracking? Give me a break."
He added: "I don't believe people change a fundamental worldview so readily, and I don't believe Martens has. I may be wrong. ... I'm just saying, my gut tells me all is not as rosy for fracking New York as it seems."
Others in industry said Willis is right to raise the issue, but they also see a more nuanced picture emerging. One industry source described Martens as not perfect but solid, while another dismissed the "extremist" character portrait outright -- even if that view has been influenced by the rumored compromise that would issue permits along the Pennsylvania border and possibly hand industry lobbyists a victory.
"It's sort of part of the standard enviro playbook to reject someone out of hand just because in a past life he worked for a group with which you might not have always agreed," said Chris Tucker, a team leader at Energy in Depth, a pro-industry group. "But I think it's pretty silly, actually, and in this case, not very fair either. I think Martens is doing the best he can with what unfortunately has become a sensitive political situation."
Jason Hutt, who advises energy companies for the Bracewell and Giuliani law firm and has no personal knowledge of Martens, said the larger issue boils down to whether government officials can be successful at wearing new hats for constituencies that differ from past clients.
"The question is whether he can make the transition from wearing the hat of an outside NGO to wearing the hat of a regulator and finding the right balance points," he said. "There used to not be such a visceral reaction to that."
Defending an environmental careerist
Three former associates of Martens rejected any claims of bias or extremism. All three described Martens as a dedicated environmental professional who sees land conservation as laudable but nevertheless has approached fracking as fairly as one could.
Landon Marsh, a DEC commissioner during the Mario Cuomo administration, worked closely with Martens in Albany in the 1990s. To him, Martens has always been willing to compromise with industry and understands how to balance the tricky politics of energy supply and demand.
"He's committed to environmental improvement, that's his orientation," Marsh said. "But he's not extremist in any way. That's not a description I would associate with Joe at all."
Kim Elliman, the current CEO of OSI, said Martens has proved himself capable of walking a balanced line. He pointed to the likely policy expected to emerge from the DEC, which he described as "a trial balloon to very modest drilling."
"If you talked to any of the supervisors in towns where we bought a significant amount of land, they would all rave about Joe," he said. "He's taken his time, he listens to all sides, he painstakingly reads."
Elliman added, in reference to the more than 70,000 public comments on fracking, "I wouldn't be surprised if Joe tried to read every single one of them."
Elliman went on to reject the notion that Mountainkeeper or OSI had any interest in the fracking issue during Martens' time there. OSI's focus at the time was protecting lands from casino development, not blocking energy developers, he said, though he did acknowledge that all lands conserved by his group do not allow for mineral exploration or development of any kind.
As for why the pressure on Martens is heating up now, Elliman speculated that industry is worried that New York's regulations might set the tone in other parts of the United States. New York is on a trajectory to become the "gold standard" for well-thought-out regulations that might be copied by other states, he said.
"This is Martens' job," he said. "He's supposed to look at this thing from every possible angle."
At Mountainkeeper, Executive Director and founder Ramsay Adams was just as quick to defend Martens. He said the decision to turn the group's attention to the fracking issue was his own decision and "was not even close to being on the radar" when Martens was involved, again referencing fights over casinos.
"The oil industry decided they don't like his politics, but anybody who knows Joe knows he's the opposite of extreme," he said. "He's really level-headed. He's honest to a fault."
The DEC would not make Martens available for an interview, saying the department preferred to not comment on these questions. The American Petroleum Institute also declined to comment.
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