Today, Martens is that regulator, and that monumental decision is his. Appointed commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation last year, Martens must now make the call on one of the most controversial environmental issues New York has ever faced.
It’s a difficult position for anybody, but particularly for a man who spent more than a decade as an environmentalist. Martens, 56, was president for 12 years of the Open Space Institute, where he helped preserve 86,000 acres of wilderness and other open land in New York. When he was named by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to run the DEC, Environmental Advocates of New York called Martens a “well-respected environmental leader” and a Citizens Campaign for the Environment spokeswoman said the group was “delighted he will lead the department.”
Martens, who also served in the Adirondack Park Agency and Gov. Mario Cuomo’s energy and environment office, says he cares deeply about the environment, but that he’s also a pragmatist. Any decision on hydrofracking, he said, will be thoughtful, measured and protective of the environment he loves.
“If this activity goes forward, I want it to be as environmentally protective as it can be,” Martens said during a recent interview in the DEC building in Albany overlooking the Hudson River. “My professional life and my personal life have been dedicated to trying to protect special places.”
Neil Murphy, president of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said he’s known and worked with Martens for about eight years.
“Just knowing Joe, he likely is in angst over making this recommendation,” Murphy said. “He’s between a rock and a hard place.”
Friends and colleagues who know Martens well say he’s the perfect person to make the call on hydrofracking.
“I can’t think of anyone else in the New York conservation firmament I would rather have making this decision than Joe,” said Kim Elliman, who hired Martens at the Open Space Institute more than 20 years ago and worked side-by-side with him until Martens became DEC commissioner. “He’s a deep-rooted environmentalist but he’s not going to be an ideologue. He’s going to be pragmatic.”
Robert Quinn, assistant director of the ESF College Foundation and a Martens friend for 30 years, recalled a time in the early 1990s when Martens successfully navigated a solution to a controversial issue in the Tug Hill. Quinn, who worked for the Tug Hill Commission, said many state agencies had opposed a proposed law that would require them to meet environmental protection standards set by local governments. It appeared that Gov. Mario Cuomo would veto the legislation, Quinn recalled.
Martens, who was working in Cuomo’s environmental office, stepped in.
“Joe interceded and said this is important to the region, that this is an area where home rule is very important,” Quinn recalled. “Joe recommended that the governor sign this legislation — and he did.”
Martens grew up in Connecticut and earned his bachelor’s at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He earned a master’s in resource economics at ESF in 1981, and has been in New York ever since.
Martens said conservation of resources comes naturally.
“My father was a very practical person and he was always turning lights out and trying to squeeze as much out of a gallon of gas in a car as he possibly could,” Martens recalled. “That’s always kind of been my philosophy in life: You do things that have minimal impact on the environment.”
Every form of energy has impacts, Martens said, whether it’s natural gas or the wood with which he heats his own house. He concedes that hydrofracking, if it’s approved, will have impacts.
“Inevitably there will be problems. It’s a mechanical activity,” he said. “The question is ‘Are we comfortable at (that) point in time whenever it may be that we may mitigate the adverse impacts?’”
Martens said he knew coming into DEC he’d be busy with hydrofracking. He estimates it takes up a quarter to half of his time.
“It’s a good chunk because there’s 15 other issues that are big and have major statewide impacts that we have to deal with every day,” he said. “We deal with fires, we deal with lost hikers in the Adirondacks, we monitor biotoxins in Long Island Sound. We close shell-fishing beds.”
After the DEC released a 1,500-page environmental report last year, it received more than 74,000 public comments. Martens said DEC officials continue to review those comments and prepare responses for the final version of the report.
Hydrofracking is a controversial drilling technique that shoots millions of gallons of water and chemicals into deep rock formations to release natural gas. Opponents say the process poisons drinking water and turns rural communities into industrial zones. Proponents say hydrofracking creates jobs, raises tax revenues and helps the United States break its dependence on foreign energy.
Martens is one of the rare people who can see and balance both sides, said Al Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York and someone who has known Martens for 25 years.
“I don’t know anyone who is as balanced as he is,” Caccese said. “He recognizes that you don’t have to be anti-economic development to be a conservationist, and you don’t have to be anti-conservationist to allow businesses to thrive.”
Audubon, in conjunction with a labor and construction group, gave Martens a “Sound Guardian” award in April for helping to create a $2.4 billion project to clean up Flushing Bay in Long Island Sound.
Martens said he hasn’t made up his mind yet on hydrofracking. When asked when he will, he pauses.
“This is the question I dance around, and I hate dancing around any questions. I like to be direct,” he said. “I’ve said months, and I said months months ago, but we’re getting closer.”
Martens knows that no matter what he decides, or when he decides it, he will be criticized. He said his environmental background will influence, but not dictate, his ultimate decision on hydrofracking.
“We’re all influenced by where we come from and our personal philosophies, and it’s impossible to avoid,” Martens said. “What I have to do is make sure I’m being respectful of the law and the obligations we have as a department, and I hope that my personal philosophies only improve the outcome here.”
In the end, the decision on hydrofracking will define Martens’ tenure at DEC as nothing else will, Elliman said.
“He’s known that since day one,” Elliman said. “His legacy is going to be about fracking.”