Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday said the state plans to ban the drilling of natural gas upstate after a four-year review by his staff determined it would threaten public health and yield far fewer jobs than projected.
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said there is no solid scientific basis to show that hydrofracturing drilling, known as fracking, is safe. He said the little reliable evidence available would keep him from letting his family live near a well.
"If you don't believe your children should live there, then I agree; your duty is to suggest that no child live there," Cuomo told Zucker at a public cabinet meeting.
Cuomo avoided the dicey political decision during his first term and his re-election campaign. The action ends, at least for the near future, any chance at the tens of thousands of jobs supporters had promised as part of the revival they claimed fracking would bring to the long-stagnant upstate economy.
The Unshackle Upstate and Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce called the decision "a tremendous blow."
"While other states across the nation continue to realize the numerous economic benefits from responsible natural gas development, New York State has yielded to a well-funded, fear-based propaganda campaign," the upstate business officials said. They referred to the organized anti-fracking movement that dogged Cuomo at public events and which includes Hollywood stars and musician Yoko Ono.
The State Legislature's point man in supporting fracking, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), said the decision is a blow to "fourth- and fifth-generation farmers depending on some sort of fracturing to pay their taxes."
"I'm very angry today," Libous said in an interview. "Fracking is done in 30 other states. . . . I'm stunned we are not that good enough that we can't find a way to do it environmentally safe."
But Zucker said "prevention is the cornerstone of public health. . . . Once damage is done, it is extremely hard to fix it."
Environmentalists hailed the decision. "By banning fracking, Governor Cuomo has set himself apart as a national political leader who stands up for people, and not for the interests of the dirty fuel lobby," said Michael Brune of The Sierra Club environmental group.
Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens said park land, sensitive water sources and local zoning laws would mean "considerably less than 37 percent" of the Marcellus Shale in New York could be drilled. "Long term, it's highly questionable that it would be profitable in New York State," said Martens, who said he will issue an order banning fracking next year.
The decision ends four years of Cuomo's most difficult, protracted issue, which he called the most emotional issue he's ever faced. Cuomo, well known for his hands-on management, fully supported his staff's recommendation, while insisting the commissioners he appointed were "self-executing. . . . I had nothing to do with it."
In November, Cuomo refused to take a stand on the issue as he contended with growing upstate support for Republican candidate Rob Astorino, who promised to approve fracking.
State polls have shown New Yorkers split on the issue, while Cuomo faced criticism from environmental groups on his left and business leaders who were his biggest campaign donors.
When pressed by a reporter, Zucker said his conclusion on fracking became clear only "over the last couple weeks." But Zucker had said much of his conclusion was based on the need for some national studies still years from completion.
Cuomo dismissed any role of politics in the decision as "conspiracy theories."
Cuomo has emerged as the only Democrat who party leaders consider a possible 2016 presidential candidate to be on record as opposing fracking, just as a Pew Research Poll in November shows Americans have flipped to opposing fracking.
"I think this decision could make this governor a national environmental hero," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group which has supported fracking.