By Michael Gormley
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Environmental groups fighting fracking say Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order for a new public health study is a sign he may be backing off his plans to allow the hotly debated extraction process.
While Cuomo insists he has made no decision, he has repeatedly said he will approve fracking if the science shows it can be done safely. And the study -- if it finds no major threats -- could give him the cover to move forward with more political benefits than hits.
"There is no step back,'' Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse last week when asked about the health study. "I think it will be a more thorough review and it will be a stronger review to withstand a legal challenge. ... Our lawyers say it will be more defensible in the event we're challenged.''
Cuomo administration officials have worried privately that continued loud opposition to fracking, which injects chemically laced water into shale formations to release gas, could disrupt other policy work and the governor's re-election campaign without creating a single job.
By addressing any deficiency in the public health review now, they say, Cuomo could knock the legs out from under one potential legal challenge and actually greatly speed up hydrofracking in New York.
For Cuomo, this may be the most politically opportune time move ahead. He has political protection from President Obama, who endorses the process nationwide. Unemployment remains stubbornly high -- near 9 percent -- in New York, despite his mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs.'' And, he has a Republican controlled Senate filled with supporters of hydrofracking.
In the end, political experts don't think Cuomo's 2014 re-election would be threatened by a decision to approve fracking. National politics show it would actually help him in any run for president in 2016.
And while opposition is strong, organized and well-funded, its depth is uncertain. Polls and voter trends show approval of hydrofracking could be, politically, a wash.
The detailed breakdown of responses to an Aug. 21 Siena College poll show a steady trend of 4 in 10 New Yorkers opposed to hydrofracking while 6 in 10 either support it, don't care, or haven't cared enough to learn enough about it to form an opinion.
Politically, it comes down to weighing the real and immediate joblessness crisis in a state where the economic recovery trails the nation, against a possible environmental disaster down the road.
"There may be a short-term political hit'' with either choice, said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. "But I don't think it's a political hit of lengthy consequence.
"But I do think there are potential political implications down the road,'' Greenberg said. "The smart political decision is to let science guide the way.''
Tax revenue records obtained by The Associated Press also show an enticing uptick in hotel and restaurant business and overall spending over the last 12 months in communities just north of the Pennsylvania border. Some Albany analysts attribute that partly to overflow business from fracking already under way just south of the state line, along with tropical storm recovery efforts. Those counties saw double-digit increases, with a 28.7-percent increase in Tioga County, compared to overall statewide increase of 4.7 percent.
Overall sales tax collections increased 6.8 percent in the Southern Tier, the biggest regional jump in the state, and while the statewide average was 4.2 percent.
Bold face names abound on the opposition, although their involvement hasn't yet been shown to have bumped up steady, public opposition. Among the opponents to fracking are Robert F. Kennedy, Cuomo's former brother-in-law, along with musicians Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney. Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon joined Artists Against Fracking led by actor Mark Ruffalo.
Although Albany has a history of being star-struck when celebrities push policies, Cuomo has insisted science alone will make his decision. And he's also earned loads of goodwill and campaign funds from the entertainment industry for his championing of gay marriage in last year.
If a truly independent and thorough public review is undertaken, "I think it gets us there,'' said Dr. Kathleen Nolan of the Catskill Mountainkeeper environmental group opposed to fracking.