ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Environmental groups fighting fracking say Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order for a new public health study is a sign he may be backing off his plans to allow the hotly debated extraction process.
While Cuomo insists he has made no decision, he has repeatedly said he will approve fracking if the science shows it can be done safely. And the study — if it finds no major threats — could give him the cover to move forward with more political benefits than hits.
"There is no step back," Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse last week when asked about the health study. "I think it will be a more thorough review and it will be a stronger review to withstand a legal challenge. ... Our lawyers say it will be more defensible in the event we're challenged."
Cuomo administration officials have worried privately that continued loud opposition to fracking, which injects chemically laced water into shale formations to release gas, could disrupt other policy work and the governor's re-election campaign without creating a single job.
By addressing any deficiency in the public health review now, they say, Cuomo could knock the legs out from under one potential legal challenge and actually greatly speed up hydrofracking in New York.
For Cuomo, this may be the most politically opportune time move ahead. He has political protection from President Barack Obama, who endorses the process nationwide. Unemployment remains stubbornly high — near 9 percent — in New York, despite his mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs." And, he has a Republican controlled Senate filled with supporters of hydrofracking.
In the end, political experts don't think Cuomo's 2014 re-election would be threatened by a decision to approve fracking. National politics show it would actually help him in any run for president in 2016.
And while opposition is strong, organized and well-funded, its depth is uncertain. Polls and voter trends show approval of hydrofracking could be, politically, a wash.
The detailed breakdown of responses to an Aug. 21 Siena College poll show a steady trend of 4 in 10 New Yorkers opposed to hydrofracking while 6 in 10 either support it, don't care, or haven't cared enough to learn enough about it to form an opinion.