Towns can ban fracking, New York's top court rules (+video)

By one count, more than 100 US municipalities have passed bans or moratoriums on fracking that are similar to the ones upheld in Middlefield and Dryden, N.Y.

By , Staff writer

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    Gillie Waddington of Enfield, N.Y., raises a fist during rally against hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y., Jan. 23, 2012.
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In a victory for two small upstate New York towns, the state’s highest court on Monday upheld their local bans on fracking, the bitterly contentious method in which high-pressure water and chemicals are used to extract subterranean natural gas.

It is a decision that many observers say could reverberate through New York’s energy industry for years to come, as it affirms the “home rule authority” of towns and local communities, granted by the state’s constitution, allowing them to forbid fracking (also known also as hydraulic fracturing) and other forms of gas drilling within their borders.

The towns of Middlefield and Dryden, mostly rural communities with populations of about 2,000 residents each, defied national energy companies by passing the local bans. Drilling companies sued the municipalities, saying only the state had the power to regulate gas drilling.

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But the state’s court of appeals affirmed two lower court rulings that sided with the municipalities. “The towns appropriately acted within their home rule authority in adopting the challenged zoning laws," the court of appeals said Monday. “The zoning laws of Dryden and Middlefield are therefore valid.”

The decision comes, too, as more than 100 municipalities from Pennsylvania to New Mexico have passed similar bans and moratoriums on fracking, according to FracTracker, a national nonprofit that compiles data on the oil and gas industry. Critics say the extraction method devastates local environments, polluting the air and wells and other essential water sources.

“Today the court stood with the people of Dryden and the people of New York to protect their right to self determination,” said Jason Leifer, deputy supervisor for the town, in a statement. "It is clear that people, not corporations, have the right to decide how their community develops."

But intense political pressure on communities could be looming. According to US Energy Information Administration estimates, nearly 350 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are available for extraction in the many subterranean fields of shale across America – enough to meet energy needs for decades to come.

Proponents argue that since it is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing only half the carbon emissions of coal, it also serves environmental concerns on a global level.

Proponents add that US natural gas production would provide greater energy independence and national security, especially with the saber rattling in Ukraine, where a pipeline provides Europe with much-needed Russian natural gas. Perhaps, they say, there is a new European market for American natural gas as allies work to cut their reliance on volatile Russian-supplied energy.

Indeed, last week, the US House voted to fast-track applications for the export of liquefied natural gas, with 46 Democrats joining nearly every Republican to pass the measure 266 to 150. The policy also has the support of a number of Democratic US senators, including some up for reelection.

Already, drilling companies say, fracking has led to a boom in natural gas production, lowering the nation’s energy costs.

Monday’s ruling did not sit well with some groups in New York.

“The rights of the state and its experts ... to make decisions concerning the production of New York’s domestic resources has been obliterated by the court in favor of a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality,” said Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the upstate Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, in a statement. That group represents landowners interested in hosting drilling operations on their property.

Debate over fracking has raged for more than five years in New York, which in fact has a statewide moratorium on the practice. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fiscally conservative Democrat up for reelection this year, has handled the issue delicately. He has been waiting for the state’s Department of Health to issue a report on the health impact of fracking before deciding whether to permit the practice.

But for now, local communities are reveling in their victory over drilling companies.

“As other states roll over for a very deep-pocketed fracking industry, communities throughout New York, large and small, have challenged them and won,” said Katherine Nadeau, policy director at Environmental Advocates, an umbrella organization to New Yorkers Against Fracking, in a statement. “The fracking industry has spent millions to bully our state, even sending a team of lawyers to strip away the rights of communities who have chosen to ban fracking within their municipal lines.”

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