ALBANY -- Republicans are seizing upon what they see as a vulnerability of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo by spinning his long-delayed decision on drilling for natural gas into a major leadership flaw.
"It's a major issue and the governor has punted for political reasons," said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is considering a Republican run against Cuomo. "That's not what a leader does."
Cuomo has delayed for more than three years a decision on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing for gas trapped in a vast upstate shale deposit. Supporters say drilling will safely bring jobs, but environmentalists and liberal Democrats in Cuomo's base say drilling threatens the environment and drinking water.
Astorino says benefits of fracking range from upstate drilling and manufacturing jobs to reducing the latest spike in heating fuel costs in the suburbs, while generating revenue to lower taxes.
"There's so much potential that New York has and it's just incredible to think that we are going down the tubes," another potential GOP candidate, developer Donald Trump, told WGDJ-AM in Albany last week.
State Republican chairman Ed Cox has said Cuomo is "dithering."
That's a sharp jab at Cuomo, who has sought to build a national reputation as a decisive leader who made Albany function again, potentially setting up a 2016 run for president. Republicans hope to dub Cuomo as a new "Hamlet on the Hudson" -- the mocking term pinned to his governor father, Mario Cuomo, who took months to decide not to run for president in 1988 and 1992.
Andrew Cuomo said he won't lift or make permanent a 2008 moratorium on fracking until he gets a recommendation from his health commissioner.
"I have long described this issue as a lose-lose" for Cuomo, said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll, which has tracked a divided electorate over the issue for three years. "No matter which way he goes, a significant portion of the electorate is going to be annoyed, upset and angry."
No action may be Cuomo's best political choice, said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House.
"Why create controversy where none is required?" Sheinkopf said. Further study temporarily "placated . . . the environmentalists, while also giving hope to hydrofracking supporters."
In Albany, measures that split the electorate are often avoided, particularly in an election year. Meanwhile, campaign contributions continue to roll in. Since 2007, fracking interests gave $15.4 million to New York campaigns, while anti-fracking groups contributed $1.9 million. Cuomo has collected the most, from both sides, for a total of $994,150, according to a January study by Common Cause New York.
Last week, Cuomo's environmental conservation commissioner told lawmakers that he doesn't expect to issue any permits for gas drilling in 2014.
Cuomo's base of liberal Democrats and environmentalists, helped by celebrity power, cheered the delay.
But the GOP has an unlikely ally in Democratic President Barack Obama.
"One of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy," Obama said in last week's State of the Union address. "One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."For Cuomo, a decision also could be a loser in terms of the important "optics" of a campaign. A decision either way would likely increase hydrofracking protests during the campaign, as it has in the past in demonstrations by public union workers and by gun-owner rights groups.
Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a trade group, said the idea of the Department of Health and Commissioner Nirav Shah "studying this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. This is purely political."
Others see the delay as prudent. "Governor Cuomo is wisely giving this decision the time and attention to the health impacts that it deserves," said Eric Weltman, senior organizer of New Yorkers Against Fracking.