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Source: The Journal News

Gov. Andrew Cuomo struggles to find middle ground on hydrofracking


Posted: October 8, 2012
Originally Published: October 7, 2012

In the 21 months since he took office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has received plaudits for finding common ground with lawmakers and special interests on thorny issues like same-sex marriage and capping property taxes — topics that had confounded the Capitol for years.

When it comes to hydraulic fracturing, however, the middle ground has proven elusive for Cuomo, and some doubt whether a workable compromise is within reach.

Cuomo and the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation had signaled earlier this year that a decision on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would come within “months.” Both have since backtracked, and state officials have done little to shed light on the timetable for a newly announced review of gas drilling’s health impacts. When it will be finished is unknown.

Cuomo has faced criticism from fracking supporters and some editorial boards for not moving forward with the controversial drilling practice.

“Put another way, the man who would be President is ducking the premier energy debate of our time,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote of Cuomo this week. He is frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

The DEC first launched its environmental review of fracking four years ago. At various times throughout the process, a final decision on fracking has appeared close — most recently in June, when it was leaked to The New York Times that drilling may proceed in five counties near the Pennsylvania border, including Chemung and Broome.

But last month’s surprise announcement that the Department of Health has been asked to review the DEC’s fracking findings appears to signal that a resolution is still several months away. DEC officials have also signaled that the agency may miss a key Nov. 29 regulatory deadline, which could force it to reopen its fracking proposals to public comment and subject them to a hearing.

Environmentalists have cautiously applauded the move to further review health impacts.

“This is an important step in the right direction for government to assure the public that health and safety interests will not be trumped by corporate interests,” Citizens Campaign for the Environment wrote in a statement.

With public-opinion polls consistently showing a deep split among New York voters on the highly contentious gas-drilling process, the political implications of issuing a final decision are impossible to predict, said SienaCollege pollster Steve Greenberg.

“Whatever he decides, nearly half of New Yorkers are not going to be happy with that decision,” Greenberg said. “Does (Cuomo) take a short-term political hit as a result? Very possibly. What are the long-term political implications? It’s too early to figure that out.”

Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said the state needs to make a decision before year’s end. If it lingers longer, the decision would get caught up in the state legislative session, which starts in January.

“My sense is that something has to be decided by the end of this year,” said Libous, who supports fracking. “To go beyond that, I think, becomes extremely problematic.”

When asked earlier this week, Cuomo said his administration was not taking a “step back” on fracking, but agreed with environmentalists and various medical groups that more work could be done to assess drilling’s health impacts. The added layer of review, Cuomo said, could help prevent the state from being hit with lawsuits if it moves to allow high-volume fracking.

“We are going to take advantage of the best talent that is available,” he told reporters Friday on Long Island. “We’ll have the Department of Health do the review, but with the assistance of the best minds to do the most comprehensive health review ever done before.”

For a coalition of landowners looking to profit from leasing their gas rights to energy companies, Cuomo appears to be bowing to political pressure.

The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York — a group that had expressed confidence in Cuomo’s DEC as recently as August — now says Cuomo has “turned his back” on them.

“I think it’s politics in New York state, as usual. That’s what it’s all about,” said Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition. “We feel very let down by New York state government once again. This is another delay that is based purely on political reasons.”

Irene Stein, chairwoman of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, said she believes Cuomo is making good on his pledge to base a decision on “facts and science.”

“The governor has always said that water is sacrosanct and that he believes in looking at the scientific data,” Stein said. “I think he’s respecting the process that we’re going through.”

The state has to finish its environmental review of high-volume fracking before it can be permitted in New York. The technique has been on hold in the state since 2008, while neighboring Pennsylvania has seen its gas production skyrocket in the meantime. Critics of fracking, however, say the environmental detriments are too great to ignore.

With the debate over fracking continuing to heat up in New York, a middle ground for Cuomo may be impossible to find, said Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper.

“I don’t think he can thread the needle and make both sides happy until there’s more information out there, ” Gillingham said. “There are just too many unanswered questions.”

Broome County Executive Debbie Preston, a drilling supporter, said the uncertainty is hurting her area’s development.

“Let’s do what we got to do, say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and let’s move on,” said Preston, a Republican who supports fracking. “Because if we are not going to be doing this, we have to figure out what we are going to do — what are going to do in the Southern Tier and in New York state.”