(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Opinion writer

In the high stakes battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in New York, one issue that may play a big role is hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — which has been banned by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, amid an activist movement in the state that has succeeded in building opposition to the practice.

The Sanders campaign has telegraphed that they hope to put Clinton on the defensive over the issue in their push for an upset in the April 19th primary, which would shock political observers and constitute a blow to the former New York Senator.

But Clinton may be able to complicate the Sanders camp’s hopes of gaining traction on the issue in the state —  by aligning herself firmly with Governor Cuomo’s fracking ban. This argument is a big deal — environmentalists see the New York primary as yet another chance to shed light on the practice and to continue pushing politicians to prioritize opposition to it, and by extension, to prioritize climate and energy issues.

In a statement sent my way, Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon confirmed that she supports Cuomo’s ban:

“As she has said repeatedly, she does not believe fracking should take place where states and local communities oppose it. Consistent with that, she supports Governor Cuomo’s ban on fracking in New York State.”

Sanders has argued for a total ban on fracking, which is the practice of releasing natural gas and oil from rock formations through high pressure injections of water and chemicals. Governor Cuomo banned fracking out of health and safety considerations, a major victory for the environmental moment. Sanders’s campaign has signaled it will use this against Clinton in the battle for New York. As one Sanders adviser puts it: “Fracking is something New York state has outlawed, and there’s a big difference between Hillary and Bernie.”

But Clinton, by aligning herself with New York’s fracking ban, may be able to minimize the political importance of that difference.

To be sure, there still is a legitimate, meaningful difference between the two candidates on the issue. At the Dem debate in Michigan on March 6th, Sanders declared his total opposition to fracking. Clinton said that she opposes fracking in certain conditions — where states or localities are against it, where it is causing damage, or where there isn’t full transparency into what chemicals are being used. She argued for stricter regulation where it is happening, adding: “by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”

As Chris Mooney has explained, the two candidates differ in that Clinton’s position is more nuanced, in the sense that she does not want to override local officials in some situations, while Sanders does. It’s a debate that will unfold on the center left for years to come, and one that will become increasingly important in the argument over our energy future.

Clinton’s support for Cuomo’s fracking ban is consistent with that broader position, and does not translate into support for Sanders’s position. Nonetheless, even environmental activists who support an outright ban see value in her confirmation of firm support for the New York ban.

“It’s certainly significant to hear that she backs the New York State fracking ban,” Lindsay Meiman, a spokesperson for the environmental advocacy group 350 Action, tells me. Meiman added that activists would continue pushing Clinton to take still harder stands on climate, and that the movement’s goal was a president who is unequivocally committed to “keeping fossil fuels in the ground.” But she added: “Overall, we’ve seen movement from Clinton on climate. That’s significant.”

This issue is very likely to come up at the New York debate on April 14th. Sanders will likely again declare his total opposition to fracking, and he and his campaign may continue to prod her on the issue in coming days, with Sanders perhaps challenging her on the stump to join him in backing a total fracking ban. Clinton — at the debate and elsewhere — will undoubtedly declare her support for the state’s ban. Sanders will try to make Clinton’s refusal to support a total federal ban stick.

But that could prove challenging, now that their political battle is unfolding in New York — that is, in a state where there is an existing fracking ban that she backs. She supports a concrete anti-fracking policy in force in the state where the two candidates are competing for votes. So Sanders will have to argue that New York voters should oppose her because she does not support a national ban, even though she supports the ban in their state.

The fact that both candidates oppose fracking in the state is itself a victory for the long range environmental movement.

“Whenever powerful elected officials or those seeking elected office support a ban on fracking anywhere, it shows that the power of the science and the facts are on the side of banning fracking anywhere and everywhere,” Seth Gladstone, a spokesman for Food and Water Watch, a national environmental group that advocates against fracking, told me. “We’re seeing in New York and elsewhere throughout this political season that the anti-fracking movement has grown into a real force. The politics has caught up with the science.”