Why fracking has Cuomo at a loss

why-fracking-has-cuomo-loss
Cuomo, enjoying the outdoors. (Reid Pillifant)
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Andrew Cuomo has a problem that can't be solved by any amount of legislative horse-trading, or any number of cajoling phone calls. 

Upstate business interests, and many residents, want the governor to open parts of New York State to hydraulic fracturing, in order to generate revenue and jobs in the economically moribund region.

But environmental activists want the opposite, and have threatened to brand Cuomo a traitor and a sellout, and to forever dog his future ambitions, if Cuomo allows any drilling at all. 

At some point, maybe soon, Cuomo will make a decision about whether to allow fracking under certain circumstances or to ban it indefinitely. But while he and his administration can delay a final decision, as they did again on Tuesday, he can't really finesse it. 

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On fracking, there is no Cuomoesque middle ground.

"NOT ONE WELL," read a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register on Tuesday morning, in an unsubtle nod to Cuomo's undeclared plans for 2016.

"Governor Cuomo, America is looking to you," said the ad, which was sponsored by a consortium of environmental groups including Greenpeace. "Don't allow a single fracked shale gas well in New York. This is your chance to be a national leader on climate. Your choice now will be remembered forever."

The predicament has given the governor pause, with the administration missing a series of deadlines in the name of ever more studies of the potential impact of drilling. On Tuesday, the state health commissioner, Nirav Shah, said in a letter that the state's health review will "require additional time to complete," meaning the state will not meet a February deadline.

The issue defies the usual political methods of Cuomo, who has been lauded by pundits, and rewarded in the polls by the public, for his ability to negotiate compromises among competing interests in Albany.

His budgets have been unfailingly on time, with the support of upstate Republicans and the certification of pro-labor Democrats. He shepherded a same-sex marriage bill through a skeptical Republican Senate. He negotiated a raise in tax rates that could also be sold as a tax cut, to the satisfaction of all sides.

Last month, he brokered the nation's first gun control bill since the tragedy in Newtown, to cheers from liberals across the country, while adding enough tough penalties and mental health restrictions to attract significant Republican support, and allow them to claim some ownership of the legislation, too.

That bill has inspired angry and vocal opposition from some gun owners, but Cuomo has dismissed the opposition as outliers, and polls show a majority of New Yorkers support the new laws.

On fracking, there's no such consensus. The public is evenly split on the issue, with 40 percent in favor, and 40 percent opposed, according to a Siena poll last week.

And even though there's some constituency that would support a compromise position—like, say, a ban fracking in the environmentally sensitive watershed and approval of a small number of projects elsewhere to proceed on a trial basis—there's a significant number of voters who wouldn't see it that way.

Among opponents of fracking, whose number includes celebrities like Yoko Ono and the actor Mark Ruffalo, 54 percent saying they'd be "very upset" if the governor allowed any drilling at all.

"You can't have both, don't you see?" yelled Ruffalo, at a protest at the Capitol last week. "You can't say that we have Sandy, we have climate change and we have to fight it, and then in the next breath say we're going to move forward with hydrofracking in New York State. It's called cognitive dissonance, those two ideas don't go well together."

Ruffalo said drilling would make Cuomo a "shill" for the industry and encouraged Cuomo to make the state a leader in renewable energy instead.

"If you do that, with our help, we'll help you get there, we'll help you be president," Ruffalo added. "But we'll cream you if you open New York State to fracking."

Proponents of fracking are less unified. Only 20 percent say they would be very upset at a prohibition on drilling, and 39 percent say they would be "somewhat upset." 

For Cuomo, the danger of a total ban isn't so much in the drop in overall public support--his approval rating hovers near 70 percent, even after a slight drop recently, and he's on track to win re-election by a massive majority.

But it could have an effect on the idea that the governor is doing everything within his power to jumpstart the state's economy and communicate to national industries that New York is "open for business," even as the state's unemployment rate lags behind the national average. More seriously, it could set up a real upstate-downstate divide in Cuomo's approval numbers for the first time, which ruins his ability to run for president, like George W. Bush successfully did 13 years ago, as a governor who managed to work effectively with everyone.

In upstate New York, "fracking could be the difference between economic life and death," wrote Allysia Stanley, an associate editor for the Wall Street Journal's online opinion page on Tuesday, expressing what is not at all a marginal opinion in the depressed regions hoping to cash in on the gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale.

"Cuomo loses his mojo," read the headline on Monday's column from New York Post state editor Fred Dicker, who has begun giving Cuomo the treatment that was so long reserved for the governor's less fortunate opponents.

"The New York/Pennsylvania border is like the old Berlin Wall, with Pennsylvania being free West Berlin, with prosperity and good jobs thanks to gas drilling,’’ said someone Dicker called a "a top New York business official."

Cuomo's commissioner of environmental conservation said the state could issue fracking permits quickly once the state had finished studying its potential health impacts. It'll be at least a few more weeks.