ALBANY -- There's an industry that's pushing to get into New York with a promise of tens of thousands of jobs and the biggest private-sector commitment of capital in decades, while offering a way to help the United States become less dependent on Middle East oil.
But drilling for natural gas deep in upstate's massive Marcellus shale deposit is seen by environmentalists as a huge threat to public health and the environment, and the debate has become an issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign.
Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has postponed a decision on allowing fracking pending a study on possible health effects. His Republican opponent, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, supports drilling.
Environmentalist fear that the process of jetting water and chemicals into shale to extract the trapped natural gas -- known as hydrofracking -- will contaminate drinking water supplies and disrupt the ground, possibly contributing to earthquakes. They say the state must take a stand to avoid the next Love Canal disaster and to avoid adding to a history of trading pristine land and water for a quick buck.
However, several towns in the Southern Tier and in Central New York are urging the state to allow gas companies to drill on land they bought or leased from residents. Supporters say the economic benefit from construction, drilling and trucking will create jobs and prosperity, which some now see happening across the Pennsylvania border where hydrofracking is already underway.
Economic benefits toutedSupporters of fracking said drilling would not only provide millions more to the state budget for education and other priorities, but would reduce the need to spend billions a year in so-far futile efforts to rev up the upstate economy. How many jobs would be created isn't clear.
Drilling probably would start in the half-dozen or so towns near Binghamton, which have asked for it after experiencing decades of economic decline that began in the 1970s.
In North Dakota, which is booming from fracking, the state government has run up surpluses and the unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in September. Many economists consider that rate full employment -- a point where there are more unfilled jobs than those actively seeking jobs.
In September, the national average unemployment rate was 5.9 percent, and New York's rate was 6.2 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate in the areas that would get fracking were at 6 percent or higher.
But some studies warn of threats to the environment and cite reports of higher incidences of illness around drill beds.
"Hundreds of key findings and peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrate that fracking would contaminate our water, pollute our air and poison our health," said Isaac Silberman-Gorn of New Yorkers Against Fracking.
Veto given to municipalitiesIn June, New York's highest court ruled that municipalities may prohibit drilling for natural gas within their boundaries, which was seen as another blow to companies because it would restrict their ability to drill.
Throughout his term, Cuomo has postponed a decision on fracking despite an earlier approval by his Department of Environmental Conservation. A decision has been put off until after Election Day. Cuomo said the time is needed for more health studies before he lifts or extends a moratorium on drilling.
"It's one of the most highly politicized, highly emotional, highly opinionated topics and I am relying on substantive experts in my administration who don't bring a bias to work through it and give me their best advice, which I will follow," Cuomo said. "I'm not a scientist. I'm not going through the data and research myself. They are."
His delay in making a decision comes even as some Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are pushing fracking as a way to provide the United States with more energy independence from the world's trouble spots.
Companies lose interestThe delay, in effect, may be a decision in itself. Some companies have moved to other states, let land leases lapse, and at least one went out of business waiting for New York to act.
Profit motive reduced
That lessened interest is compounded by the depressed price of fuel -- pushed in part by greater supply from fracking in other states -- which reduces the profit motive to invest in New York.
"The answer is most definite that the industry has lost interest in New York," said Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association. He said estimates of jobs that fracking could bring to New York have ranged from 5,000 to 20,000.
"I understand the dynamics of not touching a hot issue in a campaign season, but the dynamics here are driven more by politics than science," Gill said.
Astorino contends the delay is all political. "Like the science is incomplete on this? A five-year study when 34 states are already doing it and have been through the science?" he said in a recent televised debate.
"He's just politically paralyzed," said Astorino of Cuomo.
Astorino said New York must, however, also use the expertise in the field to craft regulations for the safest drilling. But he said he's confident those practices are available.
Meanwhile, the campaign money surrounding the issue kept coming.
From 2007 to 2013, pro-fracking interests spent $48.9 million lobbying in New York State, while anti-fracking groups spent $5.4 million on lobbying. Anti-fracking groups also spent $1.9 million on campaign contributions during that time, far more than pro-fracking interests, according to a January study by Common Cause New York.