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NY FRACKING: Did state come close to saying OK?


New York Sen. Dean Skelos, left, and his son. Adam, arrive to court on Nov. 17.
(Photo: Associated Press)

ALBANY - Did Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration privately suggest it would lift the state’s long-standing moratorium on high-volume hydrofracking — only to announce a ban days later?

The son of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos claims that’s the case in a new series of wiretapped phone conversations played in federal court Monday, but there are key inconsistencies in his story.

Both Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, are facing trial in Manhattan federal court, with the senator accused of using his influence to enrich his son with jobs at politically connected companies.

Listen to the wiretapped phone conversations below.

One of the schemes centers around the state’s decision-making process on hydrofracking. Prior to banning large-scale fracking last December, Dean and Adam Skelos had been angling for fracking to be approved while Adam Skelos contracted with AbTech Industries, an Arizona-based company that produces a filter that could be used to treat the massive amounts of wastewater fracking produces.

In a series of phone conversations, Adam Skelos spoke with lobbyists and an AbTech official about trying to get a meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in hopes of pushing through a regulation that would require fracking companies to recycle all of their wastewater, which would significantly boost the market for AbTech’s filters in New York.

At various points, the lobbyists eyed three Republican senators — Sens. Thomas O’Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County; Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton; and Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, Seneca County — as potential targets for support, hoping to convince them to push for a regulation requiring the companies to recycle all of their fracking wastewater.

It was a pressing matter, Adam Skelos told lobbyist Nick Barella in a Dec. 12, 2014 conversation. Adam Skelos insinuated that his father had told him state Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had been making the rounds among Senate Republicans, asking whether there would be “blowback” if the state lifts what was then a fracking moratorium.

“He went around to the Senate asking not what they thought about fracking, but if there would be any blowback from us when they approve it,” Adam Skelos told Barella.

Adam Skelos’ story changes, though, as he speaks to others.

Later on Dec. 12, he spoke to Michael Avella, another lobbyist. He told Avella that the deputy commissioner — not Zucker — spoke to the lawmakers.

“The deputy commissioner of DOH has been going around to Senate members asking if they’d be a part of any sort of blowback, political blowback if the governor lifted the moratorium on fracking,” Adam Skelos said.

Four days later, on Dec. 17, Adam Skelos’ story changed again.

When he spoke to Bjornulf Wolf, an executive with AbTech, he said it was the DEC that had reached out to Senate Republicans, not the Department of Health.

“So here’s what happened,” Adam Skelos said. “The DEC reached out to a few of the senators that are — that’s districts run on the Marcellus Shale and they want to make sure that there’s not going to be any, any blowback when they lift the moratorium.”

The next day, Zucker and then-DEC commissioner Joseph Martens announced the state would ban large-scale fracking, raising concerns about its impact — known and unknown — on human health.

Spokespeople for the DEC and health department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The phone conversations reveal Adam Skelos’ and the lobbyists’ strategy for pushing their product, though it was ultimately unsuccessful.

In one mid-December conversation, Adam Skelos relayed a wild claim: He said Wolf had met previously with the Department of Health representatives who said the state would move to lift the moratorium on fracking. He said Wolf and his associates “signed nondisclosures.”

Barella didn’t believe it, calling the claim “incredulous.” His skepticism that was ultimately proven right.

“I mean, you know, all of us that have been around the government a long time find that totally unbelievable and, and far-fetched, that they would, they would tell anyone that in a meeting,” Barella said.