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Protestors in Albany urge Gov. Cuomo to reject hydrofracking development. Photo: Brian Mann
Protestors in Albany urge Gov. Cuomo to reject hydrofracking development. Photo: Brian Mann

Protestors, industry pressure Cuomo on gas fracking

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Hundreds of people joined a protest Monday on the bank of the Hudson River in Albany. They're hoping to convince Governor Andrew Cuomo to reject plans for hydraulic fracturing in New York. Companies hope to use the controversial drilling method to extract natural gas from deposits that lie deep underground.

Cuomo is expected to decide any day now whether to give the industry the green light, and activists and lobbyists are scrambling to influence the governor's final plan and to shape how his decision is viewed by the public.

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Hundred of people turned out to hear speakers including activist Bill McKibben and actress Debra Winger. Photo: Brian Mann Climate change activist and author Bill McKibben speaking at Monday's rally.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The arguments have been framed and locked in for months. Pro-development groups that say central New York's rust belt needs new industry, new jobs. Environmentalists and their allies say fracking would contaminate groundwater supplies, devastating communities and farms. 

With Governor Cuomo expected to announce a fracking decision in the next couple of weeks, anti-fracking groups held a big rally Monday morning on the Hudson River waterfront.

Author and climate change activist Bill McKibben, one of the speakers, compared this moment to Cuomo's leadership last year when he pushed the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"He did the right thing [on gay marriage]," McKibben said. "This is the next one of those and this time he has to stand up to the forces of money."

This is a tough moment for Cuomo politically. Unemployment remains high in much of Upstate New York and a recent poll showed New Yorkers pretty evenly divided on fracking.

But in Cuomo's Democratic Party only 30 percent of the people surveyed support the drilling technique. Sandy Steuben, from Albany, said this decision will be remembered by liberal voters like herself: "If he finally comes out for a ban on hydrofracking finally, I'll think better of him. If he wants to issue permits, then it's sort of like the usual follow the money story." Steuben said she would work to support a primary challenge against Cuomo.

But if environmental groups are pushing hard on one side, industry and pro-business groups are pushing hard on the other — with ads like this one produced by the US Chamber of Commerce: "Shale energy means good paying job for New Yorkers and millions in revenues for our communities," the ad promises.

While the protestors were marching yesterday in Albany, industry spokesman John Conrad with Conrad Geosciences was appearing on the public radio program Capital Pressroom.  He predicted that the environmental message wouldn't sway Governor Cuomo, and described the protest as part of an "extreme fringe."

"I saw a sign coming in today that said, 'Fracking is a crime.' The rest of us, DEC, the industry, are working toward a workable set of regulations and guidelines where we can both the benefits of natural gas and safe hydrofracking."

But it’s hard to see how Governor Cuomo and the state DEC can strike a balance that would satisfy both sides. The Governor has suggested that he might create new rules that allow local communities to decide whether or not to allow fracking within their borders. 

But Conrad says that's unworkable for gas developers. "You simply can't begin to let local municipalities determine whether or not it can happen within their boundaries. It would create an unworkable situation for industry."

Meanwhile, critics of fracking say they don't believe that the natural gas industry will provide long-term economic benefits Richard Crow lives in Smithville in Chenango County, smack in the middle of New York's natural gas region: "There are a lot of people who could use the jobs, but what price are you going to put on your drinking water?"

Governor Cuomo's approval ratings are sky-high in New York. It's unlikely that this one issue will change that dramatically. But the decision on fracking will be a centerpiece of Cuomo's environmental legacy. And it could shape how he's viewed by national Democrats if he moves on a wider political stage, possibly as early as presidential race in 2016.

 

 

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