NEW YORK -- Pro-industry groups in the Empire State have been jubilant in the wake of this year's elections, claiming an endorsement of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas was evident in local and national results. But with Superstorm Sandy fallout related to climate change and energy infrastructure now acting as a wild card, political observers here are unsure whether the past few weeks have been good or bad for the drilling practice.
One thing is clear in New York: Many of the candidates who ran on a strong anti-fracking platform in rural, upstate areas were trounced. Across the board, these candidates lost campaigns for local and national seats.
Democrats in two instances lost House races in a key neck of the state where fracturing, or fracking, may happen if the state permits it. In the redrawn 22nd District, Democratic congressional aide Dan Lamb -- who was endorsed by New York Residents Against Drilling and actively ran on the issue -- was handily beaten by Republican Rep. Richard Hanna. In the nearby 23rd, which was also redrawn, Democrat and anti-fracker Nate Shinagawa lost to incumbent Rep. Tom Reed (R).
The trend was also evident on the local stage. In the part of the state known as the Southern Tier, on the Pennsylvania border, pro-development Republicans reeled off a string of victories. These include wins for Broome County Executive Debra Preston, two state senators in the region, and a handful of local town supervisors in places like Sanford, Vestal and Union where the anti-fracking movement was active.
The pattern might not have been so pronounced were it not for the candidates themselves trying to make the elections into a fracking referendum. Lamb, a top aide to retiring Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D), earlier this year called the 22nd District contest "the first race in the country about hydraulic fracturing."
"It is a referendum on unsafe, unstudied drilling, and it's a race we must win," he said during a late August rally in Binghamton.
Such claims set the stage for industry groups to pounce. The Central New York Landowners Coalition is promoting election results as a "clear mandate" to the state's government, which is still studying a moratorium against fracking. And Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said contests in the Southern Tier signaled "a resounding 'yes' to natural gas development with landslide victories."
She pointed to the House seats specifically as well as the Broome County race, which was a favorite target of environmentalists and local activists looking to overhaul the county's governance to look more like communities where fracking has been banned. Broome County is on the border of Pennsylvania in the central part of New York -- making it a kind of ground zero for the shale development fight upstate.
"These are political leaders who have stood strong for safe and responsible natural gas development and the jobs it will create for the hardworking people of many economically depressed communities," Moreau said.
Lamb said he does not regret running on a fracking platform, though he did back away from earlier rhetoric that his race was a referendum on shale development. He appeared to suggest the topic was one of the only plausible lines of attack against an incumbent opponent with strong name recognition, more money and a more populous Republican base to draw from.
"I knew we were going to have an uphill climb," Lamb said in a phone interview, pointing to Hanna's financial advantage and tough-to-top name recognition in the northern part of the reshaped 22nd, which is home to Binghamton but was redrawn to include more rural areas stretching north to Oswego County.
Backing away from a referendum
Still, when told of industry's view on the elections, Lamb said Republicans carried the districts and races they were expected to carry. He denied his race was a referendum on drilling, in other words, despite his own directed statements on the stump during the campaign.
"I think that's propaganda," he said. "That's not a data-driven analysis. That's looking at elections that were based on political boundaries, not a referendum on a single issue."
Lamb added: "If people went out and voted straight up or down on drilling, then we could have that conversation."
To Rich Schrader, New York legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, fracking was "a kind of midlevel issue" during the campaign this year that was not likely a kingmaker. He added that the GOP machine poured "a lot of money" into the western New York races in an attempt to hold onto the House, in districts that he labeled "deeply Republican."
"It's a very, very divided state," he said, noting that polls on fracking are about evenly split. "But I wouldn't buy the anti-fracking argument that they did well just because of fracking. These races had a deeper political context."
Speaking from Washington, D.C., Paul Bledsoe, an independent policy consultant and former Clinton White House energy official, said the results in New York may show that support for shale development is growing, even in regions that have been skeptical. But he cautioned that a tight regulatory regime would likely follow.
"This makes it especially critical that industry redouble safety oversight in areas like New York where any early problems could be crippling to its reputation," he said.
On the other end was Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates of New York, who dismissed the notion that the elections were good news for industry. He pointed to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D) solid upstate numbers against an opponent, Manhattan attorney Wendy Long (R), "whose pro-fracking agenda was the centerpiece of her losing campaign."
"New Yorkers remain concerned about the serious questions that remain and are not willing to risk public health, the value of their homes or their overall quality of life for an industry that is rushing to drill," he said.
Superstorm Sandy throws a curveball
Still unclear is how the Cuomo administration will react, especially in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
The decision on whether to lift a moratorium against fracking is essentially in the lap of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat who may run for president in 2016. The state is currently in limbo on the issue and awaiting a public health study before proceeding, having dragged its feet for four years and counting.
In the meantime, Cuomo is still coping with power outages, long gasoline lines, billions in damaged infrastructure and mounting concerns that extreme weather events may have become the new normal for a low-lying downstate with millions of residents living in areas prone to storm surges and floods.
Cuomo has already asked for $30 billion from the federal government to help pay for Sandy's damage, much of it to energy and water infrastructure. Moreover, the governor has not been shy about stating his belief that climate change was at least partly to blame. He has said the state faces "a new reality" that may necessitate storm-proofing infrastructure, including the New York City subway, and protecting the coast (Greenwire, Oct. 31).
All that could make the fracking decision all the more complex and may leave Cuomo in even more of a bind when the left side of his party, led by environmentalists, hammers the hurricane-climate connection in the months to come. Jeffrey Stonecash, a Syracuse University political science professor, said Cuomo will have to weigh all these factors before making a decision -- even as he keeps his eyes trained on early campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire in the run-up to the 2016 primary season.
"Andrew Cuomo is surely thinking carefully about the pros and cons of approving this and the possible dangers and potentials that could materialize by 2016," he said. "It is not an easy call.
"It's a pretty mixed bag for him," Schrader added. "It might give him much more pause to move forward."
More directly, green groups have already been drawing attention to how Sandy might have led to more toxic wastes in waterways if fracking had been taking place in New York. In a blog post, NRDC attorney Kate Sinding last week said "the potential for flooding around fracking sites presents serious risks, particularly with respect to contamination from dangerous wastes. A significant flooding event on a well pad or at a wastewater storage site could result in toxic wastes flowing onto nearby properties, be they homes, farms, schools or forests. ...
"Many parts of New York state that are targeted for new fracking lie squarely within areas that have been hard hit in past storms, including last year's Tropical Storm Irene," Sinding wrote.
Industry sources have dismissed the connection, saying most fracking would take place well clear of the coast. They also point out that natural gas burns cleaner than coal, so shale gas could be seen as part of a climate change solution, though some studies show methane leaks may actually mean more greenhouse gas emissions from shale fuels than many estimate.
Moreau had harsh words for the NRDC blog post, accusing the group of exploiting the hurricane's aftermath with "doom and gloom rhetoric about phantom toxic waste and fantasy scenarios about fracking and pollution."
"I’m sure they objected to the low-cost natural gas which continued to heat homes and provide co-generation for electricity in the devastated area. They would prefer that people freeze and stay in the dark to make a point, I’m afraid.”
As for Lamb, the defeated candidate said he had no inside information on how Cuomo will lean, in the end. But he believes the governor truly is putting his administration's entire effort into the review.
"I don't think anyone can accuse him of not weighing all the impacts and all the options," Lamb said.
What's next for Lamb? He said he would be helping Hinchey to transition out of office, then see what sort of opportunities arise. One possibility is getting into a "business venture" related to renewable energy, he said.