ALBANY, N.Y. — Governor 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., according to several people familiar with his thinking.
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,’’ said Kennedy, who 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 on condition of anonymity 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 have seen local economies boom as drilling rigs have sprouted up.
Cuomo issued a brief statement Saturday 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 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.