By Jon Campbell
ALBANY -- The hot-button issue has spurred rallies, full-page advertisements, plenty of radio and television spots and too many headlines to count.
Despite all of it, the public's opinion of hydraulic fracturing in New York has barely budged.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found 44 percent of New York voters oppose drilling for natural gas in the resource-rich Marcellus Shale region, compared to 43 percent in favor -- an even split given the slight margin of error.
Since August 2011, the shift has only been by no more than four percentage points, with various Siena College surveys finding a similarly consistent split.
"Whether it's a Quinnipiac poll or a Siena poll, every time I've seen the question asked -- no matter how you ask the question -- New Yorkers are virtually evenly divided," Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said.
Indeed, the various polls have been remarkably consistent despite differences in how the questions are worded.
In May, Siena found a 37-36 percent split among those in favor and opposed, respectively, to the hydrofracking technique, with 25 percent undecided. Its September poll -- which asked about a specific set of drilling regulations proposed by the state -- found 44 percent supportive and 40 percent opposed. In July 2011, it was 45 percent to 43 percent.
Stuart Gruskin, who was executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation when it launched its environmental review of hydrofracking in 2008, said the divide speaks to the complexity of the issue.
"There has been a real effort to divide people into either supporting or opposing fracking, and it does not appear from these poll results as if one side or the other has gained a clear advantage, perhaps because the general public recognizes this is not a simple problem to solve," said Gruskin, now a consultant.
Permits for high-volume hydrofracking remain on hold in New York until the DEC's review is completed, which is expected at some point this year.
The conversation surrounding drilling has largely been dominated by two opposing viewpoints -- those who think the gas industry will help boost the struggling Southern Tier economy, and those who think the environmental and public health risks are far too great.
Representatives from several groups -- including the coalition New Yorkers Against Fracking -- painted the unwavering split in the polls as a struggle between the grassroots and a deep-pocketed industry.
"On our side of that, it's because of what is really the most incredible grassroots movement New York has seen in a long time," said John Armstrong, a spokesman for the coalition. "We've been doing a pretty good job getting the word out and get the truth out, but we're balanced by that by a massive spending effort from the gas industry."
Hydrofracking supporters disagree. Thousands of landowners across New York have banded together in their own coalitions, meant to bolster their bargaining power when leasing their gas rights to the industry.
Scott Kurkoski, an attorney representing the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, said the region of the state most likely to see drilling -- mostly along the Pennsylvania border -- is more supportive.
While about 100 municipal gas-drilling bans or moratoriums have been passed statewide, only one -- the city of Binghamton -- has come in the five-county region that some believe will initially be opened up to high-volume hydrofracking.
"Many of the people in these towns are also members of landowner coalitions, and they spend a lot of time talking about these issues, getting educated, listening to experts," Kurkoski said.
A 2010 poll of Broome County, a potential hydrofracking hotspot, found 52 percent of residents in favor of tapping the Marcellus Shale, and 34 percent opposed. The Zogby International poll was commissioned by the campaign of then-County Executive Barbara Fiala, a strong gas-drilling supporter who has since become head of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Polls of nearby counties such as Cortland, Delaware and Sullivan have shown the opposite. Environmental or anti-fracking groups commissioned those surveys.
"As time goes on, you're going to see more and more constituencies joining in the effort to ban fracking here in New York," said Eric Weltman, a senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, which opposes drilling.
When it comes to the statewide opinion, however, a shift may come when the state DEC issues its final review, according to Greenberg.
"When it becomes more real, I think you'll see more action on it," Greenberg said.
James Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, said he believes there is a certain percentage of people "who are entrenched on either side and won't change their mind no matter what."
Still, his group is hopeful.
"I think in those numbers, there are people who are open-minded, and if it is done safely as it is in other parts of the country, New Yorkers will overwhelmingly come on board," Smith said.