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Cuomo Washes His Hands Of Fracking

protestor holding a sign reading Don't Frack New York in front of face, viewed across traffic
Anti-fracking protest in Manhattan, 2012. Photo courtesy CREDO.fracking

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not a man who often recognizes limits on his power.

Albany politics and Cuomo’s own political ambitions typically prompt the governor to exercise tight control on state policy. He has shown throughout his just-completed first term that he knows how to get the results he wants.

So when he claimed last month that he had no real role in the process that blocked hydraulic fracturing in New York indefinitely, it showed what he really wanted. What he wanted was to wash his hands of the fracking decision completely.

The decision to ban fracking in New York is both tragedy and farce. The practice was already under a six-year moratorium. After a New York State Health Department’s report claimed the process cannot be undertaken safely, that ban is set to continue without any expiration date. The farce is inherent in the idea that hydraulic fracturing and other advanced drilling techniques are so inherently unsafe that the residents of the 32 states where such procedures are currently undertaken ought to strongly consider moving. It is also farcical that a public health official, in this case acting Health Commissioner Andrew Zucker, would cite economic conditions as one reason to ban fracking, as though he is somehow better positioned to judge investment risks and opportunities than people who actually put up money and do this for a living.

The tragic aspect is that New York, which has been falling behind economically for two generations, desperately needs this new industry. No place in the state needs it more than the chronically depressed Southern Tier counties bordering areas in Pennsylvania where Marcellus Shale development is already breathing new life into dying communities.

New York has long been in the business of siphoning wealth from metropolitan New York City and redistributing it to upstate counties, whose local industries shriveled or fled many years ago. That policy is a patch, not a solution, and one that won’t work forever. Knowledge-based industries will continue to find many more places to grow outside high-cost Manhattan and its environs, while the state’s bloated public workforce continues to age and is starting to collect fat, taxpayer-funded pensions.

A rule based on the premise that gas development is unsafe per se is as specious as it is destructive. The fracturing itself takes place thousands of feet below the surface, far below the level of any surface or groundwater water sources. The environmental impacts, such as they are, come from the disposal of wastewater and other byproducts, and from secondary issues such as truck and rail traffic. The sensible thing to do is to establish practical and adequate standards to make sure those issues are handled in ways that avoid environmental destruction and undue burdens on communities.

Instead, New York’s environmental movement co-opted the process and perverted the standard so that any impact at all is deemed unacceptable, regardless of benefits to counterweight it. That makes sense if you live in Manhattan or Westchester, or summer in the Hamptons, and you think upstate New York exists merely to provide scenic vistas and regionally popular wines. It’s a decision that can find favor among those New Yorkers who don’t actually live in most of the state.

The gas industry will get along much better without New York than New York will get along without the gas industry. The governor’s decision is great for communities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Bradford, Pennsylvania. It’s terrible for New York towns like Elmira, Binghamton and Corning. Nor is it particularly good for more distant venues like Buffalo and Newburgh, which could benefit from larger supplies of locally sourced gas to support new industries and jobs.

There is a footnote, too, to this decision’s tragic side - one that means New Yorkers are not the only people who should worry about its ramifications. The fracking ban is bound to cheer not only New York City-based environmentalists, but officials in energy-exporting capitals from Caracas to Moscow. After all, it isn’t only other states who will get along better without New York gas competition.

This news is bound to particularly good for the Kremlin, considering the mounting evidence of Moscow’s under-the-table support for the anti-fracking movement in the West. When this theory was raised last October by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry in that state, some critics initially dismissed it as a wild charge. But The New York Times reported last week that, in Bulgaria, the Russians effectively drafted legislation that was adopted by the country’s Parliament that would ban not only fracking, but even any exploratory drilling aimed at measuring the level of the country’s natural gas reserves.

It was easy to see the motivation behind meddling with such legislation. Russia wants to keep Bulgaria and its European Union partners as a largely captive market for Russian gas. Fracking posed a threat, so fracking had to be stopped. The very last thing Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to see is Europe enjoying the kind of energy production boom that the United States, notwithstanding New York, is experiencing.

The environmental movement in this country is strong and well organized, and it certainly does not need Russian help to press its political aims. Whether, and to what extent, it is getting such help (even without realizing it) is not likely to be clear for some time, if ever. What is clear is that New York’s policy, while not in the long-run interests of New York landowners, workers and taxpayers, certainly is in the best interests of the man who is doing everything he can to re-establish the old Soviet empire, and the Cold War in the process.

Cuomo has claimed that the fracking ban was completely out of his hands. Funny how the decision did not emerge a couple of months ago, when Cuomo was running for a second term as governor, in part on his claim to have brought large numbers of new jobs to New York. When reporters pressed him about the announcement’s timing, Cuomo reversed their assumptions. “If I put it out before the election, you would have asked that question - was it political?” he said. “So it can’t be political. It’s after the election.” He is correct that the decision carried political implications, whatever he decided; announcing it before the election would have allowed voters to consider the question. Keeping that power to himself was classically Cuomo.

He would have won anyway; there are far more votes on Long Island and Manhattan than in the Southern Tier. But it would have at least been a more respectable victory than the one claimed by the man who has now decided to wash his hands of the matter.

Another postscript: Condolences to the Cuomo family on the death last week of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the father of the current governor. Though his liberal policy preferences would have continued the state’s decline, which began in the 1960s under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay, Cuomo proved capable of compromise to reflect the state’s realities. On his watch, the financial industry and related services like law and accounting flourished, and largely offset the loss of manufacturing jobs - at least downstate. And while Cuomo was renowned for his oratorical and debating skills, his arguments were always about ideas and rarely devolved into personal attacks - a trait sorely lacking on the political left today. Whatever his shortcomings, the current Gov. Cuomo also displays these characteristics. He and his father both deserve credit for them.

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