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Cuomo unlikely to reveal fracking plans in State of the State address


ALBANY — On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will lay out his vision for the third year of his term during his annual State of the State address.

Several topics are sure to be discussed — gun control, reforming the state’s education system and rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, among them.

Far less likely to be discussed, however, is one of the highest-profile issues facing the first-term governor in 2013: hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

With a state health review of the technique still ongoing, Cuomo is not expected to make any substantive mention of fracking in his Wednesday address. He has stressed he would wait to take a position until the review is completed.

But that doesn’t mean the controversy around the issue will subside.

Opponents of hydrofracking say they hope to fill the hallways outside the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, rallying against shale-gas drilling as Cuomo lays out his agenda. Supporters hold out hope that Cuomo may for the first time show his hand when it comes to fracking, calling on him to back the technique in either his State of the State or his Jan. 22 budget address as New York’s lengthy review winds down.

“My expectation is that if drilling is a go, we will at least hear something in his budget address,” said Yvonne Hennessey, an Albany-based oil-and-gas attorney for Hiscock & Barclay LLP.

Cuomo has long kept from taking sides in New York’s four-year-long battle over fracking in the Southern Tier. He has frequently called for “facts and science” to guide the state’s decision-making process, but hasn’t said whether he thinks shale-gas drilling should move forward in New York as it has in Pennsylvania and several other states.

A Feb. 27 deadline looms for the state to either finalize its proposed regulations for the technique or let them expire, putting pressure on Cuomo to publicly unveil a position by the end of next month. So he could sidestep the issue in both the address and his budget and then revisit it after the review is complete.

Walter Hang, owner of Ithaca-based environmental database firm Toxics Targeting and a key organizer of fracking critics, said it would take “chutzpah” for Cuomo to express support for fracking in his State of the State.

“Andrew Cuomo is just going to get (linked) to hydrofracking and when problems occur, he’s going to be held accountable,” Hang said. “Anyone in his position would be very wary about making that kind of close connection with an issue that’s getting more and more controversial.”

Hang and other critics will rally outside of Cuomo’s speech Wednesday, urging the state to be more transparent in its decision making. Several anti-fracking and environmental groups have called on Cuomo to reveal data currently under review by three outside health consultants, who were retained by the state for assistance. Their review has been closely guarded by the Cuomo administration.

At the same time, patience has long worn thin for the natural-gas industry and the state’s business community, who are hopeful Cuomo may be supportive of their cause -- either by outlining a plan in his Wednesday address, or by including funds for additional regulators in his budget proposal.

“It would be nice to hear the governor hint in his State of the State that he wants to move forward with the development of the Marcellus Shale,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of Rochester-based business group Unshackle Upstate. “It’s what we would expect, it’s what we hope and we’d be disappointed if we didn’t hear it.”

A Democrat, Cuomo gave a passing reference to hydrofracking in his formal, written message to the Legislature last year. The Department of Environmental Conservation, he wrote, would finalize its environmental impact statement on fracking in 2012 before a decision is made.
The environmental review remains unfinished in 2013 and must be completed before any large-scale fracking permits are issued.

For his part, Cuomo has said he will lay out a wide-ranging policy agenda in his speech Wednesday. Among the issues he will cover include the education system and increasing the state’s minimum wage, Cuomo said.

“I think you will see a very robust State of the State,” he told reporters Thursday.

Even if Cuomo doesn’t address fracking on Wednesday, the topic will be front and center come Thursday when the state Assembly will host a hearing on the DEC’s latest proposals, which would allow shale-gas drilling on a limited basis in the Southern Tier.

William Cooke, director of government relations for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said he would like to hear Cuomo “respond to the concerns of the people of this state and say (fracking) is not moving forward.”

“I will continue to hold out that hope until it is dashed by his State of the State,” Cooke said.

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