Binghamton Public Hearing on Proposed Fracking Ban

Last night, to the frustration of some area residents, and to the glee of others, Binghamton City Council members made a loud political statement that the city is not interested in the natural gas drilling industry and the potential prosperity it would bring to the region. Council members voted 6-1 in favor of a two-year moratorium on drilling in the city. MDN attended the public hearing that preceded the vote, and stayed for the vote that followed. It was a long night.

The public hearing, which ran from 6:30 to 10:00 pm, heard from both residents and non-residents, each of whom was given three minutes to make a statement to Council members. MDN editor Jim Willis was among those commenting. By the time Council members had their say about why they would or would not support the ban, and then voted, it was close to 11:00 pm.

The crowd assembled for the public hearing was respectful. Unlike other meetings where those who oppose drilling are loud and raucous and shout down people who support drilling, this time they kept silent but held up papers that said “Against Fracking” at the end of each speaker’s allotted time, whether the speaker was for or against the ban. Council chambers were mostly full with around 150 people in the room. MDN estimates that those who supported the ban outnumbered those against it by at least a 2 to 1 margin.

Residents and non-residents alike who spoke in favor of the ban lodged the following arguments:

  • Fear of accidents—there are not enough protections in place by the DEC’s SGEIS (draft drilling regulations) should fracking go forward in the state.
  • Fear of crime—many of the speakers cited unnamed studies that when fracking comes to town, so does an increase in crime due to out-of-town workers.
  • Fear of fracking wastewater—more than one speaker chided Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan and the City Council by saying the city can’t get a handle on the existing sewage plant (referring to ongoing problems at the plant), how can they hope to deal with issues like fracking wastewater?
  • Fear of natural gas drilling companies—numerous comments about how drillers don’t care about the community and are just in it for the money.
  • Fear of economic non-sustainability—some speakers made the point that IBM, Endicott Johnson (shoe manufacturer) and others in years gone by built large businesses in the Binghamton area and when they left, it was devastating to the community—and that it will be the same with the natural gas industry.
  • Fear of water contamination—everything from aquifers to rivers to private water wells will be contaminated with fracking chemicals.
  • Fear of night lights—people who have relatives and friends just over the border that live near drilling must live with well pads being lighted all night long.
  • Fear of truck traffic—trucks rumbling down the roads, traffic congestion, roads that are ruined from heavy truck traffic, diesel fumes.
  • Fear of lost scenery—one speaker, Binghamton resident Linda Johnson, maintained that if fracking came to New York, the hillsides surrounding Binghamton would sprout so many well pads it, “Would look like World War II.” Hugh?
  • Fear of flaring—several speakers spoke about being able to see flaring up to 17 miles away. Flaring occurs when newly drilled wells are briefly ignited to burn off the initial waste gas.
  • Fear of methane—one speaker claimed to “see methane rising into the atmosphere” from a flared well. (MDN’s thought was he’s a pretty talented guy, able to spot an invisible, colorless gas heading into the sky. Wish we had that talent!) Other speakers cited the work of Cornell Professor Robert Howarth in saying that methane is more polluting than coal. (Not sure what kind of mental machinations you have to perform to come up with that one.)
  • Fear of fossil fuels—more than one speaker hinted that so-called “transitional” fuels like natural gas will only prolong our inevitable transition to renewal sources like solar and wind, so forget about those evil, nasty fossil fuels and just go green now.
  • Fear of the DEC—many speakers said that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is simply not equipped to oversee fracking. They don’t have the staff. Others said the DEC is in the pocket of drilling companies and not a truly independent authority when it comes to regulating the industry.
  • Fear of exporting—one speaker said if the gas is extracted, there’s no guarantee it will stay in the local area and provide low-cost fuel for residents in Broome County and surrounding areas. She said the gas companies will sell it to the highest bidder and deny local residents the opportunity to benefit from lower cost supplies.
  • Fear of chemical spills—accidents happen, and some expressed concern that chemicals being shipped to drilling sites would end up being spilled on the ground, contaminating water supplies.
  • Fear of encroachment—the venerable Allan Nixon, no stranger to Binghamton City Council meetings, said if fracking is allowed in our area, it will be “the camel’s nose under the tent” and that it will not be long before fracking will spread to the Adirondack Park area of the state.
  • Fear of health issues—some speakers said that unnamed studies show a connection between fracking and health issues like cancer.
  • Fear of pipelines—that pipelines will disturb area land, destroy trees and the natural beauty of the area.

Stating the obvious, those who supported the ban were motivated by fear. Not a terribly good way to live life, always being afraid.

Residents and non-residents who spoke against the fracking ban for Binghamton made the following arguments:

  • Fracking is a highly technical activity, and regulation of it should be done by experts. The Binghamton law puts oversight of this complex activity in the hands of a code enforcement officer who is not equipped to understand the very activity he or she would be tasked with overseeing. Checking a well casing is a lot different than reviewing wiring in a house.
  • The law is not necessary at all. Under the current draft SGEIS rules, by definition there could be no fracking within the city limits of Binghamton. So what’s the point of this law?
  • Binghamton attorney Rob Wedlake said he has studied oil and gas law extensively. He said there are two cases pending with the state Supreme Court right now dealing with drilling bans just like the proposed Binghamton ban. He told council members if he were advising them, he would tell them to wait until those cases are resolved—that by moving forward now, the city opens itself up to unnecessary lawsuits that will cost taxpayers a lot of money to defend.
  • A ban sends the very loud and clear message to the drilling industry that, “You’re not welcome in this area.” And drilling companies will not forget it. They will avoid Binghamton when drilling finally comes to the area, choosing to not set up offices in the city, and not support businesses in the city.
  • Drilling creates an economic boom. General manager of the Holiday Inn Arena, Bob Greene, said that his hotel saw a 15% increase in revenue in 2011—all of it directly due to drilling that is happening just across the border in PA. That increase means he’s hired new employees, and that money stays in the local community, stimulating more growth and more business activity.
  • Tax revenue generated by just a few wells will bring a huge influx of new money for area townships and schools.
  • Neil Guiles, owner of Vestal Asphalt, made an impassioned plea to keep our young people in this area—keep them employed here and not ship them away. He said drilling will make that happen.
  • One speaker said, “Don’t ever ban anything.” He used the example of Cornell University. In the 1860s Ezra Cornell wanted to build his university on what is locally known as “Hospital Hill” in Binghamton. He was denied—banned—and he took his university to Ithaca. Look at that missed opportunity. Will it be the same with natural gas?

See MDN’s companion article on the vote itself, and on the explosive allegations made by one of the City Council members.