With decision unclear, fracking debate energizes crowds
It seems wherever Governor Cuomo goes these days, he’s followed by protesters who implore him not to allow hydrofracking in New York. Hundreds gathered in the ornate Million Dollar staircase in the Capitol, where they listen to celebrities and actors like Mark Ruffalo, aka the Hulk.
“We’ll cream you if you open New York State to hydrofracking,” Ruffalo bellowed, to cheers.
Guests attending Cuomo’s State of the State speech had to walk a gauntlet of a long line of demonstrators, including folk icon Pete Seeger, who sang “This land is your land, this land is my land.”
Yoko Ono, came with her son Sean Lennon, to try to meet with the governor and speak against the natural gas process that she believes will harm her farm in the Catskills.
“Fracking kills,” Ono said.
While the supporters are less visible, they are equally angry, and have held their own rallies, chanting “no more delays.”They say they can earn money in economically depressed areas by leasing their land and getting higher paying jobs in the drilling industry.
Cuomo, when he took office, said he’d approve the natural gas drilling process for New York, if it could be done in an environmentally safe manner. But reviews by his health and environmental agencies have dragged on, as deadlines have been set and then broken.
“It is a big decision for the state,” the governor said recently.
The governor has remained neutral through it all, preferring to simply repeat what has become his mantra; that “science and facts” will guide him.
“I want to take the emotion out of the fracking discussion and substitute facts and information,” Cuomo said.
The continued low prices for natural gas, due to a glut caused by over fracking in other states, has also given the governor some breathing room.
The lengthy deliberations have caused Cuomo to be labeled “Hamlet on the Shale” in a recent New York Times article. Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, earned the unwelcome moniker “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his endless deliberations on whether to run for president.
Many believe that presidential politics may be playing a role in the governor’s protracted decision making process.
Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg, who has also advised many New York politicians, says the public remains evenly split over the issue of whether to allow fracking.
"This is what I would refer to as a chief executive’s, in this case, Governor Cuomo’s, worst nightmare,” Greenberg said. “Whatever you decide, nearly half the voters are going to be upset with your decision.”
That also applies to presidential politics.
In order to win a Democratic primary for president in 2016, Cuomo would need the backing of left leaning celebrities and big money donors in New York City, many of whom oppose hydro fracking. On the other hand, it would be difficult to win a general election for president if he opposes the powerful oil and gas industry.
Fracking opponents are savvy to the political implications of Cuomo’s dilemma. They even placed a full page ad in the Des Moines Register, which Cuomo dismissed.
“I’m not going to read it, because I’m not going to be in Des Moines,” Cuomo said.
For now, the governor is keeping his options open. His Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, who has been conducting a review, says he now wants to investigate more studies on the health impacts of fracking before he makes any decision on whether it’s safe for New York. On the other hand, Cuomo’s environmental commissioner says if given the green light, drilling permits could be issued just 10 days after an environmental impact statement is released to the public.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens spoke on February 27, the day another deadline for fracking was missed, when a rule making process expired. Martens says the review process is “no longer on a specific timetable”.
“I expect to hear back from Dr. Shah sometime shortly, in the future,” said Martens, who says he has “no plan of action” until he receives the Health Commissioner’s report.
Meanwhile, the Joint Landowners Coalition, a group of landowners hoping to secure drilling leases, has announced plans to file a lawsuit, and is actively seeking plaintiffs.