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Anti-Fracking Claims the Upper PR Hand

Anti fracking groups presented Governor Cuomo with 200,000 signatures asking for a ban on the gas drilling process in New York,  and a State Senator predicts  the opposition will  have an effect on the governor.

The coalition New Yorkers Against Fracking delivered boxes containing 200,000 signatures to Governor Cuomo’s offices that they say are from state residents who want the gas drilling process banned. An aide politely accepted them, but Governor Cuomo, whose public schedule listed him as being in Albany, did not appear.

The Cuomo Administration is in the midst of an environmental impact study on the effects of fracking in New York. Currently, the Department of Environmental Conservation is reviewing over 60,000 public comments on the gas drilling process.

The event was the latest in a series of near weekly events by anti fracking activists at the Capitol during this legislative session. State Senator Tony Avella,  a Queens Democrat who is pushing for a ban on fracking, says he thinks the opponents are winning the public relations battles over the controversial drilling practice, and predicts that will eventually  have an effect on Cuomo.

“The governor seems to want hydro fracking to move ahead, and I think that’s a serious mistake not only for the people of the state, but for his future political ambitions,” said Avella.  “All it will take is one accident and those future political ambitions may be squashed.”

Roger Downs, with the Sierra Club, says he also thinks Cuomo, who is believed to have national aspirations, is facing pressure from the gas and oil industries, to support what Downs says is the “drill baby, drill mantra” .

But Downs says the governor can still change his course and stand up for renewable energies instead.

The anti frackers will step up the pressure May 15th, when they are staging a concert with Natalie Merchant and Joan Osborne. It will also feature actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo reading accounts of people who say they were harmed by fracking.

The lobby group that represents gas companies in New York, the Independent Oil and Gas Association, has begun its own effort to win back public opinion.

They’ve begun a series of post card mailings. One features photos of what the group calls “Hollywood” actors, Ruffalo, Debra Winger, and Gaslands director Josh Fox, saying “reading from a script does not make you a scientist”.   

Spokeswoman  Cherie Messore says just because famous actors and musicians  advocate for a point of view, doesn’t mean it’s correct.

Messore says professional scientists and engineers don’t believe fracking is harmful, and she says their opinions should carry more weight.

“The science and facts are pretty  indisputable,” said Messore.

Oil and gas officials have also begun coming to the Capitol on a weekly basis, to hold private meetings with state legislators. They say further delay in fracking is only hurting the state’s small business community, which could see increased sales in hotels, restaurants and other service industries if the gas drilling begins, and they lament what they say has become a “hostile and extreme opposition”.  

Governor Cuomo has been publicly neutral on the issue while his Department of Environmental Conservation decides.

“”I’m reluctant to get in front of the DEC,” Cuomo said recently .

Cuomo also refused to speculate on his future political ambitions, though he has admitted the talk is "flattering".

The Environmental Commissioner, Joe Martens said recently that he could not predict when fracking might begin in New York, but suggested it might start first in communities where there is less public opposition.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.