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For Cuomo, N.Y.'s fracking fight has national implications

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Colin Sullivan, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, June 11, 2012

NEW YORK -- Experts with an eye on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's presidential ambition say the first-term Democrat is facing a stern political test that could go a long way toward determining his viability as a national candidate. That homegrown fight is over hydraulic fracturing.

Whether Cuomo will run for the White House in 2016 is a no-brainer to political veterans here. They say the popular, middle-of-the-road son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo is prepared to go where his father never did and make a decisive play for the Democratic nomination.

But in the run-up to that decision, a vexing test has emerged in New York over what once seemed like a shoo-in environmental permitting process for a breakthrough technology. A groundswell of opposition on the environmental left to the process known as high-volume fracturing, or fracking, has built over the past several years and put Cuomo in a bit of a box.

That is because Cuomo has tried from the start of his administration to position himself squarely on the center-left. He has worked with Republicans to craft sound budget after sound budget, winning accolades from both sides for setting his sights on making Albany work.

Yet this time, on fracking, Cuomo finds himself caught between the economy on the center-right and the environment on the left. He will soon have to make a decision after years of delay on permits for natural gas producers. Whatever move he makes is bound to either alienate a core constituency opposed to fracking or distance the governor from a pro-development, upstate agenda meant to address rampant unemployment.

That kind of test is precisely the kind of challenge that will come up on the campaign trail during the primary process in 2016. How Cuomo handles the matter in the months ahead could be crucial, experts say.

To Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at State University of New York, New Paltz, Cuomo has so far worked hard to balance the state budget, minimize taxes and "bring New York into a fiscally responsible circumstance." That side of his politics has been matched by accommodating the left on social issues, specifically on enacting a same-sex marriage law.

Now comes fracking, which Benjamin sees as "a highly visible test" of Cuomo's disciplined national image in the making. Whether the governor can tiptoe between the left and right this time and emerge stronger is a question, he said.

"It matters because he made economic development a priority in New York," Benjamin said. "It has become not only substantively important but also symbolically important."

Dodging a decision?

Also emerging is a battle in the state's court system. As Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has slow-walked its way through the question of ending a moratorium against fracking since 2008, local opposition in dozens of municipalities has matched the outcry from activists, and various attempts to ban fracking at the local level have already ended up in court.

That the issue has gone to the judicial system before Cuomo's administration settles it at the state level has put pressure on the governor to say yes or no after years of delay. Steve Cohen, the executive director of the Earth Institute and a sustainability professor at Columbia University, said that dynamic means Cuomo has to decide soon or possibly lose control of the issue.

To many, Cuomo has lately looked unsure about fracking, telling reporters in February that a final decision was "a few months away." Now it is June, and Cohen says the pressure is picking up to settle the matter by the fall at the latest.

"Anything past that, if he gets into the winter months without a decision, it will just look like he's dodging it," Cohen said.

But Cohen also suspects that Cuomo has exactly the right formula in mind. He pointed out that nearby states looking to profit from gas deposits in the sprawling Marcellus Shale have proceeded with haste and left many with the impression that producers were dictating the agenda there. In Ohio and Pennsylvania specifically, Cohen said the rush to permit during the early days of the recent gas boom, before prices tanked and left developers waffling, created a kind of Wild West that Cuomo has avoided.

"I think he's doing the right thing," Cohen said. "Carefully and thoughtfully is the correct thing to do."

Cohen added that he personally has evolved on the question of fracking. At the outset of the regulatory process over permits, in 2008, Cohen was skeptical, but after researching the topic in detail he now believes Cuomo can position himself where no other politician has managed to position himself: as pro-development and pro-jobs with tough rules meant to protect water supplies and limit local footprints.

Cohen also says activists have set up a false test for Cuomo as they look to ban fracking outright, because they are "debating doing this against doing nothing." He said the planet is in a transition stage from fossil fuels to something else, but while that "something else" is not yet determined, the reality is humans need energy.

"The question is what is the least bad thing you can do," he said. "If you're going to have hydrofracking, do it in a way that's as careful as you can possibly be."

Cohen added: "I don't see anyone turning their lights off."

Separating from Father Mario

Jeffrey Stonecash, a political scientist at Syracuse University, agreed that Cuomo appears to have managed the situation well so far. He noted that the upstate New York economy has been stagnant for decades, and rural areas have shed population and farmers, but to him, Cuomo is looking a lot more presidential than rival politicians or former heads of state.

"It is tricky, and taking your time is probably a good idea," he said. "Not everyone is like George [W.] Bush and thinking from the gut."

Still, Cohen returned to the notion that Cuomo could be interpreted as dodging the issue if he is not careful. He said an air of indecision is precisely what Cuomo has always tried his best to avoid, to distance himself from his father, who famously had an airplane waiting to take him to the New Hampshire primary in 1992 but ultimately never ran for president after years of public fretting.

"It's not so much which way he decides, but if he doesn't decide, then they'll be comparing him to his father," Cohen said. "I think he needs to be careful about that. He has managed to avoid any impression of indecision so far."

In the end, Benjamin said he is surprised the issue has emerged as "consequential nationally," but he believes it has because it tests a Democrat's capacity to be seen as a tough reform candidate who can balance his liberal base with economic pressures in his state. And energy issues, always difficult locally, have consistently ranked higher on the national scale, he said.

"It's a real test of political skill," Benjamin said. "I don't see the way this matter resolves clearly. I think it's very much up in the air as to whether we do it or not do it."

"A lot of it depends on what they actually come up with," added Cohen, who seems to think Cuomo will lift the moratorium combined with strict oversight. "I think fair-minded people will say whatever they come up with is better than what anybody else has done."

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