Binghamton Bans Fracking; Serious Allegation by Councilman

Closed for Business Until 2013After a 3 1/2 hour public hearing and a short recess, Binghamton (NY) City Council last night convened in regular session to vote on several matters, including Local Law 11-7, a law “to effect a prohibition of natural gas and petroleum exploration and extraction activities, underground storage of natural gas, and disposal of natural gas or petroleum extraction, exploration and production wastes.” City Council members voted 6-1 in favor of the two-year ban on fracking, joining other cities around the state like Buffalo and Syracuse that have done the same.

A vote like this must be viewed in context. The Binghamton City Council has seven members, all of whom are Democrats. Just a little over a month ago in the fall election, all seven seats were up for election. Three of those seats were won by Republicans who will join City Council on January 1, 2012. Additionally, two of the sitting Democrat council members did not run for re-election and will be replaced by new Democrats. Bottom line, five of the seven Council members in 2012 will be new—four Democrats and three Republicans. This was legislation passed by a very lame-duck group of officials with an agenda.

Those who spoke out against the ban (see this MDN story) accused City Council of making a political statement—there is no reason for the ban, it serves no practical purpose. New York State does not yet allow high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, and it looks increasingly like it may not come to the state even in 2012. Detractors of the proposed ban pointed out that even if fracking were to be allowed today, the new drilling laws proposed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation would make drilling inside Binghamton city limits illegal due to the many regulations about distances from water supplies and other rules that would make it impossible to drill beneath the city.

So why the ban, and why now? It was a political statement, pure and simple, according to many who attended the public hearing and vote. One Council member, Martin Gerchman, stated there has not been enough time to consider such wide-ranging legislation and that with a coming change in the makeup of the Council, the measure should be held over until next year to give the new Council a change to vote on it. He made a motion to “hold over” the ban, but with no seconds, his motion failed. After several other Council members rose to deliver their defense of the coming vote and why they would support it, Gerchman addressed the Council a second time, and what he said next was explosive (although you won’t read about it in local media).

Councilman Gerchman said several other Council members had told him their aim was not a “temporary ban” for the next two years, but to get fracking permanently banned. That is their true motivation. He also said one of the Council members present had told him privately, “It doesn’t really matter what most residents think. If you have ‘right’ on your side, you should vote to ban it.” Gerchman did not identify which Council member had said that to him, although he frequently glanced in the direction of Councilman Sean Massey as he spoke. Massey is one of the Democrats defeated by a Republican in the last election and someone who will exit City Council in another week.

Gerchman’s allegation illustrates the breathtaking arrogance of some elected officials. Gerchman was saying, in essence, that City Council and Mayor Matt Ryan believe they know better than their constituents—that they realize a majority of Binghamton residents are against such a ban—but that in a twisted sense of “morality” it’s OK for them to govern against the will of the citizens they were elected to represent.

Gerchman ended his second address to the chamber by saying that this law tells an entire industry, “We don’t want you here.” Before sitting down and the final vote, he angrily said, “I’m very disappointed in this Council.”

There was no doubt about the outcome of the vote. The sad fact is that the 3 1/2 hour public hearing was an empty gesture. Council members had already made up their minds before entering the chamber how they would vote at the end of the evening. The entire evening was an elaborate dog and pony show.

So where does it go from here? No doubt the new Binghamton City Council that will convene in early January will at least try to overturn the legislation. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will be successful. City Council will need a majority to overturn it, and then a majority to override a veto by Mayor Matt Ryan, a veto which he would certainly cast. MDN will let you know how it turns out in the coming weeks.