Ask environmentalists in New York whether they woke up on December 17 expecting Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to ban fracking by noon that day. They'll answer: "no way."
In fact, The Empire State's massive anti-fracking community spent that morning girding for battle, preparing to picket the governor's January 7 State of the State Address, which they expected to push a pro-fracking agenda. Only those activists gifted with second sight could have imagined that, within a few hours, they'd be issuing statements thanking Cuomo. And, not even the seers could have imagined being able to watch Cuomo join happy activists in an impromptu celebration, observing that their campaign to keep fracking out of New York was "what democracy is all about."
So, why did Andrew Cuomo buck the trend which saw two dozen other American states give fracking the green light with hardly a question raised, and decide instead to ban it?
Andrew Cuomo, a famously controlling chief executive in matters of policy and operations, alike, banned fracking because he waited for the evidence to come in and listened to what his senior staff and constituents were telling him. And that, in tough situations like this, is what leadership is all about.
What makes the governor's decision all the more astonishing is that he prohibited fracking despite a totally underhanded campaign by the gas industry, which played on a bad economy and problems with other energy sources like coal to push a hugely popular "drill first, ask questions later" agenda. Indeed, New York initially bought into such arguments, leaving it to local activists, academics and environmental organizations to remind state officials that the evidence shows drill-friendly communities actually tend to do worse in personal income, employment growth, economic diversity, educational attainment, and ability to attract investment. And, that fracking probably releases more climate-trashing gases than coal burning.
Ultimately, the drillers' dreams of fracking New York succumbed to the growing mountain of proof that this dangerous process causes birth defects and respiratory illness, while polluting our air and drinking water with carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde.
In other words, New York kept faith with its proud tradition of grass-roots advocates pushing policymakers to let science control environmental decision making. That's quite a relief, considering how the modern environmental movement got its start here, when groups like Hudson River Fishermen's Association [now Riverkeeper] and Scenic Hudson used impacts on fisheries in order to stop Con Edison from siting a poorly-conceived pump-storage hydroelectric project at the base of historic Storm King Mountain, in 1965. Nearly fifty years later, the same spirit shows in headlines like "Public Service Commission Listens to Rockland, Freezes Desalination Plant" and "Global Partners Drops Plan to Expand New Windsor Oil Terminal Facility".
We know that Andrew Cuomo had hoped to say "yes" to fracking. His administration floated a trial balloon about a pilot program, in which only a few "test" wells would be drilled. His Department of Environmental Conservation then sought to convince us to support fracking, because it would somehow be safer and better regulated here. (How this could be, after the 20 percent staffing cut the department had suffered, was not explained).
But, these gambits were rebuffed, and in February 2013, Cuomo announced that he would do what no other governor had done -- take a deep dive into the emerging science of fracking's impacts on public health. And, in those two years since Cuomo called in the health experts, the peer-reviewed evidence against fracking's safety just kept mounting. For example:
• A 2014 report by Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University researchers found that women living near fracking sites had as much as a 30 percent increased risk of giving birth to babies with congenital heart defects.
• An October 2013 Yale/Washington/Colorado State study found fracking significantly increases upper respiratory and skin problems.
• New York's Institute of Health and the Environment at the University of Albany and others studied air emissions in five fracking states, finding dangerously high levels of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene (levels ranged from 35 times to more than 770,000 times normal) and formaldehyde (levels from 30 to 240 times normal) near frack sites.
In the end, Governor Cuomo listened to senior state officials who came to agree with activists that fracking's adverse environmental, economic and health impacts are simply unacceptable.
Cuomo called it correctly, when he and the grass-roots finally buried the hatchet: New York's decision making process on fracking is "what democracy is all about." The Governor's willingness to let the facts lead him where no other U.S. governor had gone before makes his fracking decision what leadership is all about, too.
Fracking lost a big one as 2014 drew to a close. More such losses are inevitable, as governors around the U.S. wake up to the reality behind this poisonous technique.