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The Maybe State


Anti-Fracking Protesters in Albany

They’ve become a fixture at the governor’s public appearances: Dozens, hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand activists bearing signs that read “No Fracking Way” and “Don’t Frack With Our Future.” Some have beards and bang on drums, some wear business attire. Sometimes they’re joined by Mark Ruffalo, who played the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers movie. And sometimes Pete Seeger turns up to sing “This Land is Your Land.”

These days, they follow Andrew Cuomo just about everywhere—a campaign fund-raiser in Buffalo, a Harvard Club chat in New York, his State of the State address in Albany—in droves.

Cuomo doesn’t like to acknowledge them, but their very presence provides a constant reminder of the tough spot he’s in as he decides whether to allow fracking to take root in New York or to ban it altogether. Or, rather, as he doesn’t decide.

While 30 other states have declared the practice safe, Cuomo has placed the decision in the hands of his health commissioner, where it remains, pending further study. In the meantime, the prospect of fracking exists here in a state of suspended animation.

The politics of making a decision either way, for Cuomo, aren’t good.

If he allows fracking in New York, even on a limited basis, he risks depressing enthusiasm among the liberal base he’s counting on to deliver him the overwhelming, status-affirming re-election victory he’s looking for this year.

If he bans it, he’ll run afoul of many of the upstate voters he’s worked so hard to court.

The state’s Southern Tier, which stretches over the gas-rich Marcellus shale, is among New York’s poorest regions. High-volume hydraulic fracturing would create 25,000 direct jobs, according to the state’s projections, in a region that has been hemorrhaging employers and residents for generations.

Even the state’s key environmental groups are not in agreement over what New York should do about its natural gas reserves. Some, such as Frack Action, are pushing for the outright ban. Others, including the highly influential Natural Resources Defense Council, haven’t ruled out fracking as an energy source, though they are pushing for tight regulations.

The decision, if it ever comes, won’t be a simple one. But the process is, technically speaking, ongoing.

Walter Hang spends a lot of time warning his fellow activists not to get complacent. Hang, who founded Toxics Targeting, an environmental data firm in Ithaca, said too many of them feel that they’ve already won—that the governor has already spoken by way of his inaction, and will punt the decision on fracking indefinitely.

Hang doesn’t believe it.

“It is an ongoing battle,” he said. “Nothing has been resolved.”

On that score, he’s in perfect agreement with Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York Petroleum Council. She says that if fracking were approved tomorrow, companies would flood back into the state.

“They look at this long-term, this is not a short-term investment,” Moreau said. “This is a 100-year plan for companies like Exxon.”

She pointed to the half billion dollars paid out in royalties in two Pennsylvania counties that border New York’s southern tier, and said that oil-industry executives tell her they don’t understand how New York can spurn so much tax revenue.

Clearly, though, the New York fracking proposition is turning out to be a bit too long-term for some would-be investors. Companies like Norse Energy, which leased 130,000 acres for gas exploration, have declared bankruptcy and left. The state’s primary industry group, the Independent Oil and Gas Association, has lost a good chunk of its membership and cut lobbying and public relations ties to save money.

In 2012, Exxon Mobil spent $2 million on an advertising campaign promoting fracking, but didn’t repeat its push in 2013. Chesapeake Energy has spent more than $2 million to push for fracking in New York; it walked away from 13,000 leased acres in September.

The industry isn’t waiting for the state to make up its mind on fracking, even as America’s natural gas production is expected to surge past Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s. The question of whether any of it will come from New York can only be answered by Cuomo, and he’s not talking.