ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came as close as he ever has to approving fracking last month, laying out a limited drilling plan for as many as 40 gas wells before changing course to await the findings of a new study after discussions with environmentalist and former brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy Jr., several people familiar with his thinking told The Associated Press.
The turning point, which could delay a decision for up to a year or longer, came in a series of phone calls with Kennedy. The two discussed a new health study on the hydraulic fracturing drilling method that could be thorough enough to trump all others in a debate that has split New York for five years.
"I think the issue suddenly got simple for him," Kennedy told the AP, then went on to paraphrase Cuomo in their discussions: "'If it's causing health problems, I really don't want it in New York state. And if it's not causing health problems, we should figure out a way we can do it.'"
Kennedy and two other people close to Cuomo, who spoke to the AP only on condition of anonymity because Cuomo is carefully guarding his discussions on the issue, confirmed the outlines of the plan the governor was considering to allow 10 to 40 test wells in economically depressed southern New York towns that want drilling and the jobs it promises. The plan would allow the wells to operate under intense monitoring by the state to see if fracking should continue or expand.
They all said it was the closest Cuomo has come in his two years in office to making a decision on whether to green-light drilling.
The state has had a moratorium on the process since 2008 while other states in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, such as Pennsylvania, have seen local economies boom as drilling rigs have sprouted up.
Cuomo issued a brief statement Saturday through a spokesman saying that the state departments of environmental conservation and health are "in the process of making a determination with respect to the safety and health impacts of fracking.
"After, and only after, they conclude their work will the state's position be determined - it's that simple and it hasn't and doesn't change with any conversations," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said.
The governor continues to refuse to talk about his internal process and wouldn't comment directly for this story. He has been repeating the phrase he's used for two years, that "science, not politics" will rule.
Kennedy, brother of Cuomo's ex-wife, Kerry, described a governor who is intensely involved in the emotion-charged issue, which Cuomo privately likened to taking on the National Rifle Association over gun control laws. Kennedy said Cuomo reached out personally to many others as well in his evaluation.
Kennedy believes Cuomo held off in large part because of the prospect of a new $1 million study by the Geisinger Health System of Pennsylvania, billed by property owners seeking safe fracking and environmentalists as a "large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment" of drilling in Pennsylvania.
The study will look at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near wells and other facilities that are producing natural gas from the same Marcellus Shale formation that New York would tap.
Unlike most studies funded by advocates or opponents of hydrofracking, this study would be funded by the Sunbury, Pa.-based Degenstein Foundation, which is not seen as having an ideological bent.
"I think it will be pivotal," Kennedy said. Preliminary results are expected within the year, but there is no specific timetable and final results could be years off. Kennedy is opposed to fracking unless it can be proven to be safe for the environment and public. He said he's unsure what the Geisinger report will conclude.
The research and education arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America cried foul at the private conversations of the powerful public figures.
"This is pretty outrageous, above and beyond the four-year charade that's already occurred," said Steve Everley of Energy in Depth. "The governor has insisted publicly that his review of hydraulic fracturing will be based on science, and yet he's actually making decisions about New York's future based on backroom conversations with a Kennedy.
"Maybe if Governor Cuomo had been as interested in speaking with other regulators as he was in speaking with his former brother-in-law, he would have recognized that shale development can be and is being done safely, and folks struggling to find work upstate might actually have jobs," Everley said.
Dan Fitzsimmons, leader of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a pro-drilling group, said opposition to hydrofracking is based on politics, not science.
"Delay, delay delay, that's been the name of the game with these folks, and the sad thing about Cuomo is that he's allowing it," Fitzsimmons said. "How long are you going to throw away taxpayer dollars over politics?"
But Adrian Kuzminski, a fracking opponent with the group Sustainable Otsego, said he fears that the test wells Cuomo has been considering would be "a stalking horse" for more drilling.
"After a couple of years they're going to say 'Oh, we don't see any problems,'" Kuzminski said. "There's no need for test wells in New York state. The information is just out there."
Shortly after the conversations with Kennedy in early February, Cuomo's health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, mentioned the Geisinger study among three health reviews still pending and which could enter into Cuomo's decision. Shah, a nationally respected public health figure, was an associate investigator at the Geisinger Center for Health Research before going to work for Cuomo.
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said Saturday, "As Health Commissioner Shah said, the right time to study fracking is before fracking begins. We expect that Governor Cuomo will listen to scientists and medical experts and let evidence dictate whether or not to lift our state's moratorium, and we further expect that he will wait for national studies and a real New York-specific study."
Cuomo, a popular Democrat who supporters say may run for president in 2016, is getting criticism from both sides over his delayed decision and calls for more studies. Landowners and industry say they're missing out on an economic boom while environmentalists say the administration should have ordered a full health study and has been too opaque about the regulatory process.
Some pundits have questioned whether Cuomo was "becoming Hamlet on the Shale," echoing a reference to criticism of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who spent politically damaging months as "Hamlet on the Hudson" publicly debating whether to run for president. It's a characterization Kennedy rejects.
Many federal and state regulators say hydraulic fracturing, which injects a mix of water and chemicals thousands of feet underground to crack open shale and release natural gas, is safe when done properly and thousands of sites have few complaints of pollution. But environmental groups and some doctors say regulations still aren't stringent enough and the practice can pollute ground water. The Marcellus Shale lies under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
"What's interesting is Andrew is trying to figure this out," Kennedy said. "It's interesting to see this ... that usually doesn't happen. (Most governors) take a poll, or they take industry money and just do it ... but I think this is the harder route."
Associated Press Writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report from New York City.