You are here

Cuomo foes dog him on fracking


ALBANY – Plenty has changed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office nearly four years ago.

Same-sex marriage has been legalized. Local property-tax increases have been capped. Income-tax brackets have been tweaked. Tougher gun-control measures are in place.

The gas-rich Marcellus Shale, however, is the same as it ever was in New York.

Despite taking steps early in his term toward lifting the state's de facto ban on large-scale hydraulic fracturing, Cuomo's administration abruptly added another layer of review in late 2012. Now, the moratorium Cuomo inherited in 2011 remains in place and a decision on fracking's future in New York will wait until after Election Day.

With Cuomo facing re-election for the first time this November, his political opponents are trying to use his uncharacteristic indecision on the issue against him. But with public-opinion polls still showing New York voters consistently split on fracking, it's unclear whether Cuomo's foes -- including Republican candidate Rob Astorino, a gas-drilling supporter -- can capitalize on it.

"For a Republican to -- as Astorino has done -- predicate their candidacy upstate on the fracking issue when it is at best 50/50, it's a tough issue when you need to win upstate overwhelmingly," said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and former aide to three Democratic governors.


Cuomo's administration took over the state's review of large-scale fracking -- a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are blasted deep underground to fracture shale and release gas -- in January 2011, 2 1/2 years after it was launched by then-Gov. David Paterson.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation later that year released a revised, lengthy draft of an environmental impact statement, supporting the issuance of fracking permits but only with certain safeguards in place, such as an outright ban on drilling in the New York City watershed in the Catskills.

At the same time, Cuomo appointed a diverse panel of gas-industry representatives, environmentalists and lawmakers that was tasked with coming up with ways to fund the dozens of DEC employees needed to regulate the industry.

But the panel didn't last for long. It held a series of closed-door meetings over the next several months but produced no report. It gathered for the last time in December 2011.

After missing a key deadline to set fracking regulations in 2012, the Cuomo administration tasked then-state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah with reviewing the DEC's work and making recommendations.

Since then, Cuomo was sued twice over the delay -- once by a bankrupt oil-and-gas company, the other by a landowners coalition. But a trial-level judge sided with the state; the case is currently being appealed.

Shah abruptly resigned in May of this year without his report being finished; it's now being led by Acting Commissioner Howard Zucker, and Cuomo's administration has given no indication of when it may be completed.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Manhattan, Cuomo confirmed what had long been suspected: there will be no decision on fracking before Election Day. As he often is, Cuomo was confronted by anti-fracking protesters when he cast his ballot on Primary Day earlier this month and told them he would pay a visit to fracking sites in Pennsylvania.

"It's taken a fair amount of time because it is a complicated issue," Cuomo said Sept. 9 at his polling place in New Castle, Westchester County. "You can have academics and scientists, by the way, on both sides. And you can have academics and scientists with research stand up and argue passionately pro, and you have them arguing passionately against. So it is a complex issue, but I want to do it on the science and not on the politics."


Astorino has made fracking and shale-gas drilling a major part of his platform, particularly in the Southern Tier, the long-struggling region that sits above the state's untapped portion of the Marcellus formation. The Binghamton area, which is in what is believed to be the richest part of the Marcellus, is one of two metro areas in the state to have lost jobs -- about 200 -- between August 2012 and August 2013.

He has pledged to expedite the state's fracking review on "Day One" of his administration. He supports a buffer zone around the New York City watershed in the Catskills and around the Finger Lakes where fracking wouldn't be allowed.

"Governor Cuomo has been playing politics with this for all the wrong reasons," Astorino said in a video on his campaign website earlier this year. "We need leadership, just like 30 other governors in the United States have led their states to explore natural gas reliably, responsibly, the way it should be done."

Astorino has gained support from the Binghamton-based Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, an expansive group of property owners upstate who have banded together in regional groups to enhance their bargaining position with gas companies who may someday drill in New York.

"Rob has come by several times. We've had great meetings with him," said Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the coalition. "People are very active now with putting his signs out and getting signs. I think it's going to be a lot more active this year than it ever has in the past."


But Astorino's position has made him a foe of anti-fracking activists, who have become a highly organized protest group with significant bases in the Finger Lakes, Catskills and New York City. Fracking foes say the process can cause damage to the environment and human health and isn't worth the risks.

An August poll from Quinnipiac University showed opposition to fracking inching up slightly in New York, with 48 percent opposed and 43 percent supporting the technique.

Fracking foes are no fan of Cuomo, either, having become disillusioned with his resistance to embracing a full ban on shale-gas drilling.

Zephyr Teachout, a little-known, under-funded law professor, credited the "fracktivists" with helping her rack up 34 percent of the Democratic primary vote against Cuomo on Sept. 9. She performed well in the Catskills and Finger Lakes.

Over the course of his term, opponents of shale-gas drilling have protested outside of dozens of his events, with hundreds showing up at each of Cuomo's last two State of the State addresses.

Cuomo can expect more of the same over the next two months, said Walter Hang, an Ithaca-based organizer and owner of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database term.

"I'm telling the governor that we have just begun to fight between now and Election Day," said Hang. "If he thinks he's been bird-dogged before, he hasn't seen anything yet."

With no major-party candidate backing a fracking ban, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins is hoping to pick up some support. Teachout had called for an outright fracking ban, and Hawkins is hoping his message appeals to those who backed the upstart Democrat.

In a letter to supporters this week, Hawkins said his support for a ban is nothing new.

"I called for a ban on fracking for natural gas as the Green gubernatorial candidate in 2010 at a time when most environmentalists urged a moratorium so that the health and environmental impacts of fracking could be studied," Hawkins wrote.