Central New York Landowner’s Coalition Rally: Coalition Lawyer Scott Kurkoski

The second speaker at the April 10 large meeting of the Central New York Landowner’s Coalition (CNYLC) at the Unadilla Valley Central School featured someone MDN reported on previously. Scott Kurkoski is a lawyer specializing in mineral rights with Levene, Gouldin & Thompson, a law firm located in Vestal, NY. He is the official lawyer for the CNYLC.

Kurkoski opened his remarks by thanking Richard Lasky and the Steering Committee of the CNYLC for the excellent work that they do on behalf of landowners everywhere. He said the purpose of the meeting is to listen to the next speaker, Don Zaengle, a consulting geologist for the Coalition. Mr. Zaengle previously worked 20 years for Shell Corporation. Mr. Zaengle’s talk will be about the geology of the CNYLC—it is important for landowners to understand the geology and how it affects the lease terms they will ultimately receive.

Kurkoski gave an overview of the relatively brief history of drilling in the Marcellus Shale in New York State. He said after the stock market crash of 2008, Chesapeake Energy, one of the world’s largest natural gas drillers (and the largest in the U.S.) was in such poor shape financially they had to strike a deal with Norwegian company StatoilHydro to “stay alive.” Two short years later with the start of drilling in the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Chesapeake has “taken off” (like a rocket). According to Kurkoski, “Our area [the Marcellus Shale] is the focus of the world. It is a world-class natural gas play.”

In 2008, landmen started going door-to-door saying inaccurate things to landowners in an attempt to get them to sign leases. At that point, coalitions started to form to help protect landowner interests and to seek out reliable information so landowners could negotiate with confidence with energy companies. Coalitions, according to Kurkoski, have the best interests of landowners as their sole aim.

Energy companies are looking for entire regions to drill—regions with the kind of shale characteristics that match their drilling goals. Kurkoski said, “You just can’t get a good deal on your own—the best way is with a coalition.”

So what is going on currently with New York State and drilling? About 21 months ago New York Gov. David Patterson issued a moratorium on horizontal drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing. That is, drilling in the Marcellus Shale was banned until the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could update the Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) that all companies must follow when drilling. The GEIS is a set of guidelines for drilling. The new changes to the guidelines are called Supplemental, hence SGEIS.

Kurkoski said no one thought drilling would be banned for 21 months or more, and that the new guidelines would be quickly adopted. He pointed out that hydraulic fracturing has been around for 60 years—but you don’t hear about that in the news media. He said hydraulic fracturing is safe. Another fact you don’t hear in the media: Over 1 million wells have been “fracked” during the past 60 years, and not one of them has had an instance of water aquifer contamination from fracking chemicals.

According to Kurkoski, New York has the strictest drilling regulations of any State. He asked the audience, “Does that surprise you, living in New York?” And a loud and collective “No!” was the response. He said the CNYLC wants landowners and their neighbors to be protected. Coalitions are in favor of tight environmental controls.

Yet, anti-drilling opposition wants to “shut us down” so there will be no drilling in New York, said Kurkoski. People like Central New York Congressman Michael Arcuri hear mostly from those opposed to drilling, not from landowners in favor of it, and “that needs to change.” Kurkoski said Congressman Arcuri “has some wrong views and misinformation” about drilling, and that Kurkoski’s office is meeting with representatives for Arcuri to help set the record straight.

Kurkoski spoke with the DEC just last week and he said they are being very guarded about when the final draft GEIS will be released. The next step after it is released will be for Gov. Patterson to lift the moratorium on drilling. Will that happen? Who knows. Gov. Patterson is facing a number of ethics issues. Since he’s not running for re-election, and since all signs point to Andrew Cuomo (also a Democrat) becoming the next Governor, Kurkoski is advising Democrats to have Patterson lift the moratorium and take the political heat, thereby shielding Cuomo from it. Will the Dems take his advice? Who knows!

Finally, Kurkoski addressed the issue of where much of the opposition to drilling comes from: New York City. Downstate politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are trying to get drilling banned in the entire state. Kurkoski said: “We will not let New York City speak for us on this issue!” His statement got a hardy round of applause.

Kurkoski returned at the end of the meeting after Don Zaengle to wrap things up. Among his closing comments:

  • We need to see more “Pass Gas” signs on people’s lawns all over the area, much like the signs that sprang up in Central New York in opposition to the NYRI power line, an unpopular high voltage electrical line that was due to come through the area but was eventually defeated. In the same fashion, landowners need to be vocal about their support for drilling.
  • He encouraged landowners to talk with their friends and neighbors to educate them about drilling—to help change opinion in favor of drilling.
  • He said when signing leases, be sure that pipeline rights-of-way are negotiated separately from a minerals rights lease. They are two separate issues and most of the time should have separate leases.
  • His advice was to not use a broker to sell your mineral rights. He cited a “large landowner group” in Broome County that is committed to a broker (MDN assumes he is talking about the Vestal Landowner Coalition). When coalitions use a broker, according to Kurkoski, the broker does not have the landowners’ best interests at heart—the broker has their own interests at heart in making the best deal. You may end up being forced to sign with an energy company that does not have a good environmental track record, for example. Having a broker between you and the energy company is a bad idea.
  • Kurkoski said not to panic if you get a compulsory integration notice—that is, a notice that the landowners around you have all signed a lease with an energy company and you have not, forcing you to become part of that deal because of your land’s proximity to the others. He said there are options when it comes to compulsory integration, and to seek out legal assistance to learn about those options.