Maybe Cuomo will make the right choice on fracking

A lot of important issues have come and gone in New York state politics. I have to say that nothing has been more interesting than the debate over hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking. This is the process whereby natural gas would be extracted from the vast deposits of the Marcellus Shale in New York. From the beginning, it looked like the deal was cut. It appeared that Governor Andrew Cuomo and his handpicked environmental commissioner, Joe Martens, wanted the gas and the revenue it would bring into the state. This despite Josh Fox’s brilliant film Gasland, showing evidence that folks in Pennsylvania who allowed fracking watched as their drinking water was set on fire and complained about water with potentially dangerous chemicals in it. To put it mildly, there was political hell to pay. Tens of thousands of irate New Yorkers checked in, sending letters to the Governor and testifying at the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hearings.

The charge was led by a group of concerned citizens and embraced by some very impressive and very smart public personalities including Natalie Merchant, Pete Seeger, Mark Ruffalo and the very articulate Sean Lennon. I recently interviewed Lennon and he was like the Energizer Bunny. You asked him question number one and he was off to the races. You really didn’t get to ask question number two unless you forced the issue. He and his mother, Yoko Ono, own a place over the Marcellus and they don’t want their water despoiled. Sean told me that Yoko reached out to people like Paul McCartney and got them involved in the effort.

The campaign against fracking took on a life of its own. While the polls show a fairly even division between those who favor fracking and those who oppose it, there is the matter of political saliency. Being a very sharp politician, Andrew Cuomo knows that when someone will take it out on you at the polls, you have to listen to them about their issue. This particular issue really took off. Lyndon Johnson may have been one of the most creative politicians in history but Viet Nam was his bête noir. He didn’t listen. Pete Seeger did a video in which he looked into the camera and told Andrew Cuomo that while his father may have been the greatest governor in the history of New York, he risked being the worst if he took the money from the gas interests.

In the meantime, all those folks who were desperately trying to put a stop to the fracking were careful to offer the carrot as well as the stick to the young governor with presidential ambitions. They urged everyone to write to the governor and in each case they were careful not to threaten retribution. It was all there between the lines.

If tens of thousands of people are actually writing you letters and you are the governor, you have reason to worry. Furthermore, if you know in your heart of hearts that the protestors are right; that they don’t want to risk contaminating the water, our most precious resource, you really have to think again. It is fascinating that the polls show New York City people are more favorable about fracking than their upstate cousins. Perhaps that’s because the places that provide water for New York City are considered inviolate while most of the rest of the state has to take its chances.

Every once in a while a politician is given the opportunity to create a wellspring of good will and indebtedness. In the beginning, I was certain that Cuomo and Martens would allow the fracking. Now, for the first time, I’m not so sure. When people get off their behinds, some wonderful things can happen. Here in New York, it is hard to put a stop to bad things. You really have to jump through a lot of hoops. Maybe this time, democracy actually worked.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/24/12

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