Cuomo’s Fracking Ban Is (Political) Arts and Science

Photo: Darren McGee

Give Governor Andrew Cuomo credit. He has been consistent, for nearly four years, in saying he would let the scientific facts decide whether to allow fracking in New York State. “It’s going to come down to the health commissioner and the environmental commissioner,” he told me, for the most recent time, in October. “I want a recommendation. And I’m going to follow it. Period. Politically, it doesn’t matter.”

And Wednesday afternoon Cuomo’s commissioners, siding with the studies that show the gas-extraction process to be either dangerous or of indeterminate risk, slammed the door on fracking. “The costs could overwhelm local governments,” said Joe Martens, the environmental head. “Would I let my child play in a field nearby? My answer is no,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, the Health Department boss. Their reports were so one-sided it made you wonder what took so long.

Well, politics. They have gushed like a geyser throughout this saga. The anti-fracking activists got their message out early and loudly, making it difficult for Cuomo, operating in a deep blue state, to choose to side quickly with the fracking industry. Bobby Kennedy Jr. lobbied his ex-brother-in-law the governor along the way. The environmentalists kept up the pressure all the way through September’s Democratic primary, when anti-frackers were a major factor in Zephyr Teachout’s strong showing. The delays also gave local efforts to ban fracking time to get traction in towns like Dryden; today Martens claimed those legal hurdles were greatly reducing the acreage available for fracking.

And the decision’s ramifications will matter a great deal to Cuomo, politically. He has been vexed trying to find ways to boost the economy of upstate New York, a region with the lowest job growth in the nation over the past decade. The natural gas industry is also an eager donor to political campaigns. At times it appeared Cuomo was searching for reasons to permit the drilling — if only to stick it to the fracktivists who’d badgered him. But the conflicting forces mostly made the take-charge, hands-on governor look uncharacteristically indecisive.

Today Cuomo declared it “coincidental” that the fracking decision was being unveiled hours before his casino commission picked three upstate locations for new gambling. But the rejection of fracking raises the stakes for the success of those casinos even higher and increases upstate’s dependence on Cuomo’s largesse.

Another stroke of pure randomness, the governor said, was the timing of the fracking announcement. “Well, good thing it came out after the election, right?” he said. “Now it’s after the election, so it can’t be political.” Yeah, maybe. Or maybe suffering some headaches from liberals last fall will turn out to be less important than what the left thinks of Cuomo in the next campaign, if somehow Hillary Clinton doesn’t run in 2016. For now, though, raise a glass of tap water to the governor. Or, if you live north of the city, start learning how to deal blackjack.

Cuomo’s Fracking Ban Isn’t Just About Science