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In a congressional district that encompasses cash-strapped, potentially gas-rich Sullivan County, New York City’s watershed, eco-sensitive communities like Woodstock and various rural areas on the east side of the Hudson River, incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson and challenger Sean Eldridge are on the campaign trail seeking to define their own, and their opponent’s, positions on climate change, energy policy and perhaps most critically fracking.

Gibson, unlike some of his GOP colleagues in Congress, says he has no doubt that climate change is real, caused by human activity and a threat to the planet’s future. But, he said, concern must be balanced against the impact of solutions — like higher energy taxes or closing down coal-fired electric plants — that he believes could have a devastating impact on working families.

Democrat Eldridge, meanwhile, worries about a lack of urgency on climate change and other environmental issues. He fingers the influence of corporate money from purveyors of “dirty energy” as the main inhibitor to progress.

On fracking — the process of injecting chemicals deep underground at high pressure to access natural gas deposits in shale — Eldridge said his views were formed after careful thought and much discussion during his tenure on the policy committee of the environmental group Scenic Hudson. (He stepped down from the committee to run for Congress). Eldridge said the danger to drinking water, the risk of earthquakes and the environmental damage caused by the release of methane gas outweigh any potential benefit. While fracking has brought an economic boom to the Dakotas and other areas where natural-gas drilling has emerged, Eldridge called such benefits “short-sighted.” He said  fracking would threaten the natural beauty, clean air and fresh water that are the basis of the Hudson Valley’s agricultural and tourist economy.

But Eldridge stopped short of calling for an outright ban on fracking, saying simply that he “strongly opposes” the procedure. “Obviously we all want to see more economic growth and more jobs in our region,” said Eldridge. “But I absolutely think [fracking] is the wrong way to go.”

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The positions of the candidates. (Click to magnify)

Gibson takes a balanced view of the potential risks and rewards of fracking, saying he seeks both affordable energy and economic development. He acknowledges the risks associated with the method, as well as the strong desire in some areas to keep gas drilling out. In Congress, Gibson has backed the so-called “Frack Act,” which would require all gas drilling to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and require corporations to identify all chemicals used in their operations.

In New York, Gibson said, he supports governor Andrew Cuomo’s calls for extensive study and a strong regulatory framework before fracking is allowed anywhere in the state. Gibson also applauded a recent state Court of Appeals decision which found that New York communities could enact local legislation to ban gas drilling. “Big government should not be able to join up with big corporations to force decisions on local communities,” said Gibson.

Both candidates say they’re opposed to a new “capacity zone” implemented by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is expected to raise electric rates in the Hudson Valley while lowering them for downstate residents. Gibson and Democratic House colleague Sean Patrick Maloney have waged a so-far-unsuccessful fight to block the regulatory change.

 

Renewable vs. fossil fuel

Eldridge and Gibson differ on many aspects of energy policy. Gibson claims to have the strongest record of any Republican in Congress when it comes to supporting renewable energy. But he also wants to increase access to fossil fuels by authorizing oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic Coast. Gibson supports a combination of “clean coal” technology and limits on power plant emissions that, he says, has already significantly reduced America’s carbon footprint. He said those steps, along with natural gas drilling, could serve as a bridge to a future when renewable energy sources like wind and solar can compete economically with fossil fuels. Gibson accused Eldridge of taking an “anti-science” stance in his support of a quicker phase-out of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy.

“I’m looking for science to lead the way,” said Gibson. “When you take a position that’s anti-science, it may be politically advantageous, but it’s not responsible.”

But Eldridge points to what he says is a near-total lack of progress on important environmental issues in the Republican-controlled House. Eldridge said Congress has not done nearly enough to support renewable energy with tax subsides and grants, and has maintained lucrative tax breaks for oil and coal companies. He said those policies have left the United States lagging behind Germany and other countries in the development of a non-fossil fuel infrastructure.

“We should be leading the charge on renewable energy,” said Eldridge. “And it’s frustrating that simply because of the choice of this Congress we’re not doing that.”

Eldridge sees the influence of corporate money behind Congressional support for the expansion of “dirty energy” at the expense of greener alternatives. Eldridge, who has poured more than a million of his personal fortune into the campaign (along with money from individual donors), has rejected contributions from corporate political action committees and made campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his message.

Gibson, meanwhile, lists oil and gas companies among his campaign’s underwriters.

Eldridge singled out Gibson as one of the signers of a pledge put forth by the conservative PAC Americans for Prosperity. Known by the left as “The Koch Brothers Pledge,” the oath binds signers to a “no” vote on any climate change policy that would raise government revenue.

“The science is clear — there’s a consensus that climate change is real, but Congress is not taking action,” said Eldridge. “It’s because they’re paralyzed by these corporate interests and corporate influence asking them to not take action.”

Eldridge opposes energy taxes. The burden of limiting emissions should be shouldered by energy companies without hurting consumers, he said.

But Gibson argued higher taxes or too-strict limits on energy companies would inevitably lead to higher prices for gas, home heating and electricity. In a new series of ads, Gibson touts his commitment to “affordable energy.” He says Eldridge’s policies demonstrate that his opponent is out of touch with the crushing fiscal impact on the district’s constituents of high energy costs.

“If you raise energy taxes, you hurt working families,” said Gibson. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to get that bill, open it, wince and say ‘How am I going to pay this?’”

This is the second in a series of articles examining the positions on the issues of the candidates in the 19th Congressional District election. 

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