Fracking Activists Try To Sway N.Y. Gov. Cuomo

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to decide soon whether to allow natural gas companies to use the controversial drilling technique known as hydro-fracking. New Yorkers are sharply divided on the issue. Industry groups and activists are campaigning hard to shape how the decision will be received.

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Hundreds of protestors rallied, this week, in Albany, New York. They are trying to put pressure on New York's Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo. They want him to reject a plan to expand natural gas drilling. Specifically, Cuomo's expected to decide in the coming days whether to allow more aggressive hydraulic fracturing to reach gas deposits that are locked deep underground. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, people on both sides are mounting eleventh-hour campaigns to try and sway the governor.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The arguments have been framed and locked in for months. Pro-development groups say central New York's rust belt - the area that stretches from Albany, west, along the Pennsylvania border needs new industry, new jobs. Environmentalists say the controversial drilling technique known as fracking would push a cocktail of chemicals deep underground, threatening groundwater that supplies small towns and farms.

After years of debate and review, Governor Cuomos's decision is expected any day. So anti-fracking groups held a rally on the Hudson River waterfront.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Can't frack this. Can't frack this.

MANN: Richard Crow is a retired engineer who lives in Smithville in Chenango County, smack in the middle of New York's natural gas region.

RICHARD CROW: There are a lot of people that could use the jobs, but, you know, what price are you going to put on your drinking water?

MANN: But if environmentalists are pushing hard, industry and pro-business groups aren't exactly sitting on the sidelines. Ads like this one, produced by the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, have been airing statewide.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So it's not just my family that needs shale gas, or my county. It's all of us in New York.

MANN: Industry supporters say a natural gas boom would create 15,000 high paying jobs, while also funneling tens of millions of dollars in taxes to cash-strapped local governments.

Finding any kind of middle ground in this debate has been tough. Governor Cuomo floated the idea that he might allow fracking to go forward on a limited basis, with local towns or counties having the final say. But industry spokesman John Conrad, appearing this week on the public radio program, "Capital Pressroom," called that idea a non-starter for companies hoping to develop a regional industry with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

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JOHN CONRAD: You simply can't begin to let local municipalities determine whether or not it can happen within their boundaries. It just would create an unworkable situation for industry.

MANN: Making this decision even harder for Cuomo is the fact that after all the ads and rallies, New Yorkers are still evenly divided. Steven Greenberg, with the polling firm Siena Research, says surveys conducted by his firm show an even split between supporters of fracking and opponents.

STEVEN GREENBERG: There is no safe political play here. This is what I would refer to as an elected official or politician's worst nightmare.

MANN: Activists on both sides are fiercely passionate.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Thank God I'm on my way.

MANN: At this week's anti-fracking rally, Sandy Steuben, from Albany, said Cuomo's decision will be remembered by liberal voters like herself who make up an important part of the Democratic base.

SANDY STEUBEN: If he wants to issue permits, then it's sort of like the usual pol follow the money story.

MANN: Would it affect your vote in the future?

STEUBEN: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, I'd work to get him primaried.

MANN: Finding a serious primary opponent for Andrew Cuomo wouldn't be easy. His approval ratings are sky-high in New York, and it's unlikely that this one issue will change that dramatically. But the decision on fracking could begin to shape how he's viewed by national Democrats if he moves up to a bigger political stage, possibly as early as the presidential race in 2016.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York.

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