The impact of Cuomo’s fracking ban
As 2014 wound to a close, Governor Andrew Cuomo managed the magic trick of making a group of his most persistent critics disappear.
He did this by announcing on Dec. 17, after a delay that threatened to outlast his governorship, that his administration had decided to prohibit fracking in New York. And just like that, he turned the hundreds of environmentalist protesters who had followed him around for most of his term, at least temporarily, into fans.
In characteristically careful fashion, the governor immediately sought to offload the political risks of the decision against fracking. He portrayed the state’s conclusions—and the almost comical amount of time the administration took to arrive at them—as the independent handiwork of his environmental and health commissioners. Above all, Cuomo said, the decision to formalize the state’s moratorium, which remained inertly intact throughout his re-election campaign, was purely science-based.
But whatever amounts of science and politics factored into Cuomo’s calculations on fracking, the effects of the state’s decision to ban it will be profound and far-reaching.
For environmental advocacy groups, the formalization of the state’s existing fracking moratorium was a clearer victory than they expected. For them, it puts the issue to rest, and allows them to turn their attentions to other issues related to the state’s energy policies.
A few weeks ago, Riverkeeper was considering scaling back its push against oil trains—the rail-based infrastructure that transports fracked gas through New York—in order to to ramp up its fracking response, according to its water director Kate Hudson. Now, she said, the group is formulating a more aggressive plan to pressure the Cuomo administration to kill a planned crude-oil facility in Albany.
And other environmentalists say the ostensible end of the fracking fight will allow them to campaign for laws and regulations that will hasten a New York with a solar panel on every home and wind turbines on hills.
For the oil and gas industry, whose expectations for New York were already sagging under the weight of the never-ending moratorium, Cuomo’s decision was a setback whose consequences won’t be fully known for a while.
Even though fracking in New York was hardly key to the industry’s fortunes—production in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania continues apace—there are still billions of dollars of natural gas trapped underneath the most economically depressed areas of upstate New York. And the precedent set by Cuomo, in making New York the first state with a major shale deposit to prohibit the fracking, immediately affected the debate in other states in which the practice is still relatively new or on the horizon.
New York’s shale deposits are larger than most states’, according to Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council. And that’s just the Marcellus shale, which has fueled the boom is Pennsylvania. New York’s Utica shale contains another potential gas boom. And though natural gas prices are low today, the market will certainly shift upward again in the future.
“The opposition has made it clear that they’re going to dig in to opposing our industry at every level, so we’re going to be very busy,” Moreau said.
For now, that means the industry is considering its legal options.
Cuomo said at the announcement of the state’s new fracking position that he expects a flood of lawsuits in response, and the Joint Landowners Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute are both laying groundwork for legal action. Yet absent what would be a surprising court victory, industry sources privately admit that their best hope for lifting the prohibition on fracking at this point will be for New York to elect a governor with a different position than Cuomo’s.
The most profound effects of the governor’s decision are likely to be felt in New York’s Southern Tier, which would have been the ground zero of the sort of limited fracking program many Albany observers expected Cuomo to approve.
Whether those effects are positive or negative is a matter of debate that is philosophical and, now, largely academic. It is a debate about things that are not going to happen.
There will be no fracking anytime in the near future, and therefore no environmental impact, and no risk, real or hypothetical, to human health. As polls taken shortly before the governor’s decision indicated, opposition to fracking among residents in the Southern Tier was growing, and a poll taken afterward showed that most New Yorkers supported it.
The decision also means that there will also be no new fracking-related economic development in the economically troubled Southern Tier. By the state’s own estimates—arrived at before Cuomo had decided to come out against fracking after all—the Southern Tier would have seen the creation of 25,000 new fracking jobs.
That doesn’t count the broader impact: A number of other industries could have been expected to receive a boost from those newly created jobs, in a place where there are few opportunities to work.
In some towns, young people are crossing the border to work in Pennsylvania, a trend that will only escalate now that a final decision has arrived. The new growth industry on the New York side, rather than fracking, will be an ancillary one: the construction of pipelines that will carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania into New York and beyond, to New England.
“The governor has taken the landowner’s mineral rights and robbed the Southern Tier residents of economic freedom,” Town of Windsor supervisor Caroline Price said, articulating the resentment many locals had already felt over the administration’s inaction on fracking.
Tom Libous, deputy leader of the State Senate Republicans, seemed to be reeling from shock the day after Cuomo’s decision was announced, as he asked for the siting of a casino in the Southern Tier to make up for the loss of potential fracking revenue.
(The Press & Sun Bulletin ran a memorable headline the day after the state’s near-simultaneous decisions to scrap fracking and to pass over the Southern Tier for a casino site that said, in its entirety, “NO!”)
Cuomo, offering a cost-benefit analysis that is designed to be inarguable, said that the health risks of fracking outweigh any amount of job creation.
No one but the governor can know what really tipped the balance for him: The state’s health study, two years in the making, is vague.
“We don’t have the evidence to prove or disprove the health effects, but the cumulative concerns of what I’ve read gives me reason to pause,” said acting state health commissioner Howard Zucker, at the administration’s announcement of its verdict on fracking.
That, in essence, is the state’s position: that nothing can be proven for sure. The health study does not specify how fracking harms people, but concludes that it cannot be shown definitively that the practice is completely safe.
After he took great pains to say that the state relied only on science to make its decision, Cuomo later told the group of anti-fracking activists—the ones he spent four years ignoring—that it was Zucker’s emotional appeal finally tipped his hand.
“I tell you the presentation was beautiful because he said at one point, he went through all these facts, through all this technicality, and then he said when it’s a complex issue, what I would do when I practice medicine is I would say what would I do with my child, and he said I would not let my family live in a place they’re doing high-volume fracking,” Cuomo said. “And I said, that’s good enough for me. That’s the answer.”
Who could argue with that?
This article appeared in the January edition of Capital magazine.