Emphatically indecisive on hydrofracking

Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2013 10:57 am

By Jim Eckstrom Olean Times Herald Olean Times Herald | 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown that when he whiffs a scent of political gain, he can be decisive.

He proved that never more clearly in early 2013 when, in the aftermath of the unthinkable Sandy Hook elementary school massacre by an insane, young shooter, he orchestrated his backroom gun-control legislation known as the NY SAFE Act. Virtually overnight, law-abiding gun owners and recreational shooters across the state found themselves subject to several new regulatory conditions that combined to make New York’s gun laws some of the most restrictive in the nation.

Gov. Cuomo, who considers not just how his policies will effect New Yorkers, but how he can gain political capital nationwide as he considers a run for the presidency, believed the SAFE Act was a “win” for him in scoring points for 2016 with his liberal Democratic Party base.

Far less decisive has the governor been in handling the dicey political decision of allowing — or not allowing — hydraulic fracturing practices to drill for natural gas in New York state.

Gov. Cuomo on Monday said he might decide whether New York should allow hydraulic fracturing for natural gas by Election Day next year, according to the Associated Press. He cautioned that he doesn’t want even that time estimate to pressure his staff into a hasty recommendation to lift or make permanent a 2008 moratorium on fracking to tap gas deep in shale deposits.

The dilemma the governor faces is that by keeping the moratorium in place he further frustrates upstate landowners and businesses eager to get into the shale-drilling game. Despite all his efforts in attempting to bring attention and economic-development funding to upstate and Western New York, the fracking moratorium remains as a roadblock to jobs and revenues in a region that can surely use them.

Gov. Cuomo would love to receive a strong vote in 2014 in more-Republican upstate New York, thus demonstrating mass appeal before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But with the SAFE Act and its after-effects looming larger than perhaps he bargained for — it was interesting that in the Associated Press story the governor did not include the SAFE Act on his list of fast-tracked accomplishments — the fracking moratorium could also undercut his overall popularity upstate.

Yet he has his downstate liberal base to answer to — the base that would see a lifting of the moratorium as a major betrayal. It’s something like the tea party effect on conservative Republicans (is Gov. Cuomo liberal enough?) but far at the other end of the political spectrum.

So the governor is simply “kicking the can down the road again,” said Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. He said Pennsylvania and other states have prospered from drilling in the same Marcellus Shale while New York has hesitated, prompting companies to move on to other states.

In an ironic twist on the overall issue, the governor announced Sunday the $150 million repowering of a Dunkirk coal-burning power plant — to cleaner-burning natural gas. He says the announcement portends nothing in regard to his stance on fracking in New York.

Meanwhile, Scott Waldman of capitalnewyork.com writes that fracked gas has already spread throughout New York state and is being used to heat homes and other residential needs.

“A new pipeline recently connected to New York City brings in natural gas obtained by fracking in other states and has the capacity to heat 2 million homes a day,” he wrote. “In the last year, 1,100 large buildings have switched to natural gas from oil.”

Mr. Waldman cites info from National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella in writing, “It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the gas now used in New York comes from fracking because it is mixed in with gas from other sources, including the Gulf of Mexico. … But it’s inarguable that the energy grid is becoming more reliant on gas fracked in other states. (Mr. Stella) said bills across some upstate communities have been reduced as a result of abundant domestic energy supply.”

Yet to many environmentalists, no fossil fuel can be a “good” fossil fuel.

So Gov. Cuomo bobs and weaves, turning to natural gas to keep the Dunkirk plant operating — and saving hundreds of Western New York jobs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions from a coal-fired plant — but denying the potential of horizontal fracking development and attendant revenues throughout central New York and across the state’s Southern Tier.

One expects to see more such gyrations in the coming months and years from a governor whose vision extends far beyond Albany.

(Jim Eckstrom is managing editor of the Olean Times Herald and executive editor of Bradford Publishing Co. His email is jeckstrom@oleantimesherald.com)