Governor Andrew Cuomo has proven himself to be good at politics. He's pushed Albany to function in ways it hadn't for years. His approval ratings in the state and his national recognition affirm that he's crafty at what he does.
Which means that his recent have-it-both-ways announcement on fracking may be a model for governors and federal regulators around the country who want to walk the political tight-rope between energy lobbyists and environmental advocates. If his proposal to allow limited fracking in certain regions passes, we'll see more states following New York's lead, authorizing potentially dangerous extraction in the name of energy necessity, economic vitality, and environmental balance.
Or maybe the Governor just made a misstep by showing he's willing to subject his own citizens to a dangerous experiment, if they are economically depressed enough to have no alternative.
At the core is the question of whether fracking is safe. The short answer: not yet. Maybe not all drinking water can be lit on fire near fracking sites, but some can -- and that's enough to make this an issue that has fired up a broad base of concerned citizens.
It's not just a New York issue. Similar debates over fracking rage in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere. And where Big Energy isn't trying to frack, the same companies are pushing for other invasive and disruptive techniques: from the battle over the Tar Sands and Keystone Pipeline to the tragedy of the BP oil spill.
Every governor is facing a similar question: what kind of extraction techniques are worth what cost? The pressure to "drill, baby, drill" is there. In a depressed economy, a governor wants anything that looks like jobs. In an uncertain energy market, a governor wants anything that looks like energy. In a perpetual campaign, a governor wants anything that looks like energy lobby donations.
However, these techniques dangerous, and the governors know there are some lengths -- like messing with drinking water -- they can't tolerate.
Many argue that with the right advances in the technology, the right regulation and oversight, fracking could become safer. Yet, so soon after the Gulf was covered with oil, and Japan suffered a catastrophe, it's tough to claim that companies act with safety in mind and that oversight is where we want it to be.
If it's not safe, then we shouldn't do it. If it is safe, then why limit it to a few economically depressed regions? But if it's not safe and we are allowing it, then we are asking our Southern Tier neighbors to be guinea pigs in the energy industry and Governor's experiment…and that's neither good governance, nor a good campaign slogan.
Probably Governor Cuomo will have his way, and not only because of his popularity and his savvy. Without a bold jobs plan out of Washington, he'll be forgiven for doing anything that he can attach the word "jobs" to. Without a comprehensive energy plan in our country, there is incentive for him to make risky decisions. It's not just the lobbying that's making this happen -- it's the genuine lack of economic alternatives and energy leadership. Most Americans -- and likely many Souther Tier New Yorkers -- feel like something has to fill that gap.
The Governor's plan implicitly acknowledges that fracking isn't safe. Yet it may prove that safety matters less than we thought -- and that even risky leadership can be more successful than no leadership at all.