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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Hydrofracking Debate Spurs Huge Spending by Industry

Companies that drill for natural gas have spent more than $3.2 million lobbying state government since the beginning of last year, according to a review of public records. The broader natural gas industry has been giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign accounts of lawmakers and the governor. And national energy companies are advertising heavily in an effort to convince the public that the extraction method, commonly known as hydrofracking, is safe and economically beneficial.

Environmental groups, with far less money at their disposal, are mounting a more homespun campaign as they warn that hydrofracking — a process in which water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release natural gas — could taint the water supply and cause untold environmental ruin.

One environmental group held a Halloween contest in which participants were asked to design costumes for drill rigs. And, claiming Mr. Cuomo is rushing the approval process for drilling by collecting public comments for 90 days, environmentalists delivered 180 water-powered clocks to the governor’s Capitol office, representing the number of days they are asking him to allow for people to weigh in.

The activity on both sides of the debate is intensifying as New York conducts four public hearings across the state, beginning Nov. 16 in Dansville, a rural community in the Finger Lakes region, and winding up next week in TriBeCa.

Interest in the issue is so widespread that Joseph Martens, the state environmental conservation commissioner, said people have taken to stopping him on the street in the Albany suburb where he lives.

“It’s very, very intense; there’s no question about it,” Mr. Martens said in a recent interview. “And it’s part of a national debate.”

Mr. Cuomo, whose first effort to field questions online from residents was swamped by the hydrofracking issue, is pleading for both sides to be patient.

“I know that the temperature is high,” he said recently. “We have a process. Let’s get the facts. Let the science and the facts make the determination, not emotion and not politics.”

The lobbying push in New York follows similar efforts by the energy industry to influence lawmakers and regulators in Washington and in other parts of the country that are rich in shale formations. Several other states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have also seen millions of dollars in spending in recent years by drilling companies on lobbying, campaign contributions or both.

Much is at stake as the Cuomo administration seeks to develop hydrofracking regulations: proponents say the industry could create jobs and spending in some of the most economically struggling parts of the state, especially its Southern Tier, while environmentalists warn of risks to water quality and damage to roads. And industry estimates suggest that allowing hydrofracking in New York State could generate billions in revenue for energy companies.

“What we are seeing is the concerted application of really a substantial amount of money to try to move public policy into a pro-fracking stance,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, which has raised concerns about the environmental impact of hydrofracking. “It is a tremendous amount of pressure on our state government.”

The debate over hydrofracking has offered a new test for Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who has declared job creation to be his top priority — but who has also cast himself as a champion of the environment.

Protesters upset with his handling of the issue have been a fixture at the governor’s appearances this year, trailing Mr. Cuomo at the State Fair and staking out an underground convention hall where he had invited former President Bill Clinton to give a speech to business leaders about economic development.

Desperately seeking to attract the attention of lawmakers and regulators, environmentalists are flooding the mailboxes of state officials and editorial page editors, picketing the Capitol and staging theatrical stunts.

“This is something that, because of the scale of drilling that’s being looked at, has really captured the public’s attention,” said Robert Moore, the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “You have people who don’t normally identify themselves as environmentalists who suddenly have real concerns about this.”

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