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Gov. Cuomo's Office Tilts Study to Downplay Fracking Risks

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Gov. Cuomo's Office Tilts Study to Downplay Fracking Risks

A federal study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), commissioned by New York state to assess the impact of fracking on well water, was edited and delayed by state officials when they found some of its conclusions apparently not to their liking, according to Capital New York, which covers state politics.

Anti-fracking activists protest outside an event attended by Governor Cuomo in Syracuse this weekend. Photo credit: New Yorkers Against Fracking

"The study, originally commissioned by the state in 2011, when the administration was reportedly considering approving fracking on a limited basis, was going to result in a number of politically inconvenient conclusions for Governor Andrew Cuomo, according to an early draft of the report by the U.S. Geological Survey obtained by Capital through a Freedom of Information Act request," wrote Capital New York reporter Scott Waldman.

New York sits on a rich lode of natural gas, part of the Marcellus shale deposit, but it has had a moratorium on fracking since 2008. However, many environmentalists and community groups fear it is on the way, and that the study is intended to set up approval. The study looked at naturally occurring methane in wells in the proposed fracking area to set a baseline for methane levels, should fracking be approved.

Capital New York found disparities between the original draft and the final version of the study that came after extensive communication between the Cuomo administration and USGS. It said that the differences reveal that "some of the authors' original environmental and health risks associated with fracking were played down or removed." 

"These edits [to the study] happen to correlate closely with some potential environmental and energy minefields for the governor," says Capital New York. "The Cuomo administration, for example, is currently weighing whether or not to permit gas storage in underground salt caverns near the Finger Lakes. Opponents of the project have raised the prospect of methane pollution as a reason to deny the project."

That project was just approved by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.

Although the emails between state officials and USGS were heavily edited, Capital New York found much evidence in them to show that the state officials had attempted to steer the final version of the study. Some of the emails from the USGS reminded New York officials of that the USGS focuses on objective science and doesn't advocate a particular public policy, suggesting that there was pressure to the contrary. The emails also showed that the state Department of Environmental Conservation tracked those who read the study online.

"While there is no evidence to suggest that any numerical findings in the fracking study were changed after the unusually extensive feedback from administration officials, the changes to the explanation of those findings in the report are plain to see," concludes Waldman.

In response to today's article, Alex Beauchamp of Food & Water Watch and New Yorkers Against Fracking said, “The Cuomo Administration's apparent manipulation of a federal study on fracking is deeply alarming. Drilling and fracking contaminate water. No amount of political meddling can change that. It's time for Governor Cuomo to truly follow the science, which clearly points to the inherent and unacceptable risks of fracking to public health and the environment. It's time for him to ban fracking in New York."

Capital New York also painted a picture of a governor caught between a primary opponent advocating for a permanent fracking ban (he defeated her last month) and a Republican opponent who wants to lift the moratorium immediately. So Cuomo is doing what many politicians up for reelection in November are doing: "taking and maintaining a non-position."

"He’s holding off as he waits for unspecified studies, with unspecified timelines, on the potential health impacts," writes Waldman. "In the meantime, a moratorium remains in place that could theoretically be lifted at anytime. Cuomo has indicated only that nothing will change before Election Day."

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