ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came as close as he ever has to approving fracking last month before changing course after discussions with environmentalist and ex-brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy Jr., several people familiar with Cuomo's thinking told The Associated Press.
Cuomo was nearing a decision to allow a limited drilling plan for 10 to 40 gas wells, the people said.
The turning point, which could delay a decision for up to a year or longer, came after discussing with Kennedy a new health study on the hydraulic fracturing drilling method that could be thorough enough to trump all others in a debate that has split New York for five years.
"I think the issue suddenly got simple for him," Kennedy told the AP, then went on to paraphrase Cuomo in their calls: "If it's causing health problems, I really don't want it in New York State. And if it's not causing health problems, we should figure out a way we can do it."
Kennedy and two other people close to Cuomo, who spoke to the AP only on condition of anonymity because Cuomo is carefully guarding his discussions on the issue, confirmed the outlines of the plan the governor was considering, allowing test wells in economically depressed southern New York towns that want drilling and the jobs it promises.
The plan would allow the wells to operate under intense monitoring by the state to see if fracking should continue or expand.
The state has had a moratorium on the process since 2008 while other states in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, such as Pennsylvania, have seen local economies boom as drilling rigs have sprouted.
Cuomo issued a brief statement yesterday through a spokesman saying that the state departments of environmental conservation and health are "in the process of making a determination with respect to the safety and health impacts of fracking.
"After, and only after, they conclude their work will the state's position be determined -- it's that simple and it hasn't and doesn't change with any conversations," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said.
Kennedy, brother of Cuomo's ex-wife, Kerry, described a governor who is intensely involved in the emotion-charged issue. He said Cuomo reached out personally to many others as well in his evaluation.
Kennedy believes Cuomo held off in large part to await results of a study by the Geisinger Health System of Pennsylvania, which will look at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near wells and other facilities that are producing natural gas in Pennsylvania from the same Marcellus Shale formation that New York would tap.
The research and education arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America cried foul at the private conversations of the powerful public figures.
"Maybe if Governor Cuomo had been as interested in speaking with other regulators as he was in speaking with his former brother-in-law, he would have recognized that shale development can be and is being done safely, and folks struggling to find work upstate might actually have jobs," Steve Everley of Energy in Depth said.