Gov. Cuomo’s rumored plan to begin horizontal hydraulic fracturing of shale for oil and gas (mostly gas) in New York State is an important issue that threatens to fracture the alliance of those of us on the pro-drilling side of the debate. Many people (including MDN) are rightly outraged that not all landowners in all areas of the state will be given the opportunity to participate in drilling—at lease initially (if you believe the rumors about the governor’s plan).
But a highly placed source with knowledge of both the landowners’ plight and the governor’s thinking recently spoke to MDN to let us know we’re viewing this issue through the wrong end of the telescope and that landowners outside of select counties have not been left out. Let me explain…
On June 13, the New York Times printed a story that Gov. Cuomo is considering a plan that will allow a limited experiment of fracking in the state (see this MDN story). The plan would grant an initial 50 or so permits for drilling, and those permits would only be granted in five counties: Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga. At the time everyone believed the “leak” of this plan came from either the governor himself or someone in his office as a trial balloon, to see how the public would react (and to see how freaked out his left-wing fringe base would become).
The Times story had the effect of focusing everyone on those five counties, and according to MDN’s source, that’s precisely the wrong focus. Our source said, “It’s not about the counties, and it never was.” Why not? Because it’s “always been about the individual towns.”
Both Cuomo and NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens have said for months now that only communities (towns) that want fracking will get it. MDN’s source said the Times story, which has never been confirmed by Cuomo or Martens, has had the effect of creating a rift among landowners and landowner groups. Some believe they won’t see drilling for two years or more because they’re not in one of what MDN has called “The Lucky Five” counties, and so they feel abandoned by the pro-drilling movement.
MDN asked the question: You mean towns outside of The Lucky Five who have voted to support (or at least allow) drilling may get permits? “Yes” was the startling answer. That was a revelation for MDN. And it also explains why there is such an effort under way to get towns across the state—anywhere within the Marcellus or Utica Shale region—to pass a resolution of neutrality that says, in essence, we agree to let the DEC finish its work and we’re not going to ban anything until it does. (A copy of the resolution as adopted by the Town of Windsor is embedded below. The language gets tweaked from town to town, but this is essentially what towns are adopting that vote to “support” drilling.)
Explaining further, MDN’s source said, “Look, if you had only 50 to 75 permits to issue, would you issue a permit in, say, Ithaca? Of course not! They don’t support drilling and you’d have a lawsuit on your hands.” So it only makes sense that initially, the DEC is going to grant permits to those towns (not counties, but towns) that support drilling. And that’s why this issue, this political battle is and will be fought at the town level. And why it has nothing to do with counties. It just so happens that the five counties mentioned in the Times article are likely to have the best chances of striking rich deposits of Marcellus Shale gas.
But what about the home rule issue—the situation where towns are banning drilling, denying their citizens their Constitutional property rights? The home rule issue muddles the debate of county vs. towns. According to MDN’s source, Gov. Cuomo is not in favor of home rule or Sen. Jim Seward’s legislation granting townships home rule would have already been passed and signed into law. The source says Cuomo is the consummate politician—he knows that the courts will decide the home rule issue and he’s staying away from it until that happens. There are two pending court cases on the home rule issue working their way through New York courts now.
Our source also says allowing towns home rule would have serious unintended consequences. For example, if home rule goes into effect granting towns the right to thwart the DEC, a township would be able to set their own season and limits for deer hunting, or bear hunting. In other words, home rule would gut the DEC’s authority and result in a crazy quilt of regulations across the state—something that Cuomo and Martens will not allow to happen.
Action Plan for All NY Landowners
So where does that leave us, as landowners and supporters of safe drilling? It means that a) forget about the artificial boundaries of The Lucky Five counties. It’s not about a specific geography. And b) the fight is now local, at the township level. Landowners need to pressure (respectfully, and with good manners, but also with firmness) their town boards to adopt a resolution of neutrality that they will not ban drilling ahead of the DEC’s release of the SGEIS drilling rules.
In other words, landowners not in The Lucky Five are not victims, and they’re not helpless. They have tough work to do, but if they do it, they may see drilling much sooner than they though possible. Landowners outside The Lucky Five counties may get lucky themselves and receive a permit for drilling—this year. Also, if the pending court cases on home rule are resolved this year, or early next year, and if they are decided in favor of landowners (and against home rule), that will nullify all of the existing bans, paving the way for landowners in those towns to get drilling.
Of course those towns that previously voted to ban drilling are still on record as “opposing” drilling, but a court ruling against home rule will make it easier for the DEC, down the road, to issue permits even in those towns if the courts say those landowners cannot be denied because of a town board vote. In the meantime, landowners in those towns with a ban need to work diligently to vote those board members out of office and vote in a board who will rescind the previous vote to ban.
Bottom line: Landowners in every county are plenty to do on this issue and should not give up and play victim. Get out there and work! Stand up for your rights!
The Multimillion Dollar Question
And so finally, the question everyone always asks MDN: When will the DEC release their rules and when will drilling actually begin in New York? MDN asked our highly placed source. And that source would only say the DEC will release the new regulations, “Sometime this summer. That’s all I’m willing to say at this point.”