As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighs whether to allow fracking in the Empire State, environmentalists are working to make the case that the decision could affect his potential White House hopes in 2016.
Fracking opponents and supporters around the country are awaiting Cuomo's choice, which addresses a highly charged issue that has split New York voters down the middle. The debate touches on what has been a major issue in this year's presidential race -- energy production versus environmental protections -- and may offer a window into how Cuomo makes tough decisions.
Environmental activists say he should keep in mind the people who have flocked to anti-fracking protests in the state, such as one last month at the state Capitol in Albany.
"This movement is fermenting and I don't think any politician can afford to ignore it," said Daniel Kessler, spokesman for the environmental group 350.org, which helped organize the Albany rally. "Any politician with aspirations of national politics -- they are taking a risk if they align themselves with the multinational industry instead of where the people are."
One New York-based activist said the environment, while not the top priority for most voters this year, is "still a No. 3 or 4 issue for most people. Cuomo needs to make sure he doesn't create a problem where none exists."
But fracking supporters say Cuomo also has to be cognizant of energy-minded voters, who are just as numerous -- if not more so.
"Literally every state where there's a well in the ground pulling oil or gas out, 90 percent of them are using hydraulic fracturing," said Benjamin Cole, spokesman for American Energy Alliance, noting wells in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. "There are plenty of blue states [that] for the last 50 years have been using hydraulic fracturing."
"It may be giving him political headaches in New York," Cole continued, "but a position of openness to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is not going to hurt him when you look at the national electoral map."
New York has been operating under a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until the state Department of Environmental Conservation completes its review of the issue.
The DEC last year issued a draft version of proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing, which would largely allow the practice in the state's Southern Tier -- along the border with Pennsylvania -- while banning it in the New York City watershed upstate. The department has held public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement and regulations.
Some people expected Cuomo to decide around Labor Day, although sources say the department is still weeks from releasing a final decision.
For his part, Cuomo is keeping his mouth shut. His administration has stayed on message when asked which way he's leaning on fracking.
"Since he is so disciplined as a governor, I think that does mean he hasn't made up his mind since nobody knows," said Ramsay Adams, of the environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper. "He doesn't know. I think that's why you're seeing so much activism on this issue."
Cuomo told an Albany radio station last week that he won't pressure the DEC to finish its review by any particular date, according to a Gannett news report.
"When it's done, and they're prepared -- that's when we'll announce the decision," Cuomo said, adding that even then, "I promise you, there will be lawsuits."
Many people believe Cuomo will eventually approve fracking in some areas, but environmentalists are counting on Cuomo to ban the practice in the entire state.
"He has the opportunity to do this," said Sandra Steingraber, founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. "He's shown himself to be someone who can get things done in highly partisan situations. He can make people cooperate on political issues. He's the perfect guy to do this."
Meanwhile, industry supporters like Cole say news of the power of the anti-fracking movement is greatly exaggerated.
"It is a marketing campaign," Cole said. "There's no groundswell anti-fracking crusade that's really taking off. It's the same players that move around to every state."
People in the state are evenly split -- 39 percent in favor of fracking and 38 percent against it, according to a Siena College poll. They've been similarly split for months, said college pollster Steve Greenberg.
That means Cuomo will disappoint almost half the state no matter what he decides, Greenberg said, adding that the most important factor for the governor may be what happens next.
"Assume he decides to move forward and allow fracking: Two to three years down the road, it will have produced jobs and helped New York with energy production. It will have helped revitalize the Southern Tier economy. Then he'll get a good political benefit because he'll have a great story to tell," Greenberg said. "But if he approves it and there's a significant environmental problem resulting from hydraulic fracturing, he'll take a political hit because he allowed it."
Cuomo, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has long been on the short list of potential presidential candidates come 2016. He has tightly managed his public image, cultivating liberal voters with his support for gay marriage while pleasing conservatives by passing a bipartisan state budget.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Cuomo is doing the best he can when it comes to preparing for the fracking decision.
"When you have an issue like this, what you want to do is set up a process that gives you all the information from all sides, and that's what Gov. Cuomo has done," Richardson, who's also a former energy secretary, said this month at a POLITICO policy luncheon at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. "I think he's exploring the issue, the process very well. He's getting frank, principled, scientific input, academic input. ... He's going to arrive probably at a conclusion that won't please everyone. But at least it's a process that emphasizes science."
Others watching the debate say they've noticed a similarly cautious approach by Cuomo.
"Gov. Cuomo's position on fracking has been evolving: What started as a rush to drilling his first year has become a careful and calculated evaluation of his next move," said Eddie Borges, spokesman for Environmental Advocates of New York. "This is understandable when you consider that in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York that fracking is a top environmental concern; in some cases, surpassing climate change.
"Gov. Cuomo needs to watch his step," Borges added. "If he repeats the same mistakes that other states have made on fracking, it could be the banana peel on which he slips and falls after being so careful to reshape his reputation."
Greenberg said his advice for Cuomo would be to ignore the political consequences of the fracking decision.
"Make the best decision based on the science and merit and the right thing to do," Greenberg said, adding that "the only way he can be a successful candidate is if he can demonstrate he turned New York around from dysfunctional to functional. ... If he's done that, he has a message he can carry around to the states nationally."