New York Town Takes Up Fracking Issue

Some towns in New York are rushing to ban horizontal hydrofracking, a controversial technique for capturing natural gas trapped deep under ground. The state itself has yet to approve fracking, but Dryden, N.Y., isn't taking any chances. Town supervisors approved a ban based on local zoning. David Chanatry of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College reports, the Dryden's ban is the issue in next week's town board elections.

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So that's a debate over oil from tar sands. Now let's talk about natural gas that is obtained through a controversial method called fracking. New York is moving closer to allowing fracking in the rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale. This fracking is done by pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to break apart the rock and release the gas.

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Some towns are hurrying to ban it. Most don't have much gas to drill, but one town, Dryden, does. There more than a third of the land has been leased to gas companies. David Chanatry of New York Reporting Project at Utica College reports that Dryden's ban is the issue in next week's town board elections.

DAVID CHANATRY: If you're driving through the town of Dryden in New York's Finger Lakes region, the first thing you notice is the scenery - 94 square miles of wooded hillsides, wetlands and farmers' fields. Next come the signs. They're everywhere, promoting candidates for the town board and taking sides on what's simply known as the ban. That's Dryden's ban on hydro-fracking, and it's such a contentious issue here that even the diners are divided.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Egg salad. No lettuce, right, George?

CHANATRY: It's mostly pro-fracking crowd at the Queens Diner, where John Poulos runs the kitchen.

JOHN POULOS: Let them drill everywhere. How we going to get successful if we don't get more product out from the ground?

CHANATRY: But if you walk down the street to the Community Cafe, there's a decidedly different take. Andrea Townsend was there with two young children in tow.

ANDREA TOWNSEND: I think it's worth having a ban until there's more information showing - proving that it is safe.

CHANATRY: Without the ban, hundreds of wells could be drilled in this town of 14,000 people. Each would require hundreds of tanker trucks to haul the millions of gallons of fracking fluid for drilling. So Town Supervisor MaryAnn Sumner says last August the town took action on its own.

MARYANN SUMNER: Who's going to decide what happens in Dryden, us or a dozen pages of state regulations or a handful of multinational corporations? Who's going to say what we can do in our community?

CHANATRY: New York law gives the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry to the state. But Dryden and other towns say they're not regulating the way the industry operates; they're not allowing drilling in the first place. That land-use strategy is being preached around the state by Helen and David Slottje, former corporate lawyers who have dipped into their savings so they can advise towns for free. Their approach is to use home rule - the right of a community to control what happens within its borders. It seemed so simple, they wondered if they were missing something.

HELEN SLOTTJE: We looked at everything. I've spent thousands of hours on the research. And then last August finally we were brave enough to go public and say the emperor has no clothes. Like there is something we can do. You can zone this out at the local level.

CHANATRY: But the landowners who want to drill would be out of luck, and potentially a lot of money. That upsets some members of the Dryden Safe Energy Coalition, says Henry Kramer, who has 18 acres himself.

HENRY KRAMER: The landowners' land was worth approximately $3,000 an acre at today's rates. So if you owned 100 acres of land, the town effectively took $300,000 of net worth away from you.

CHANATRY: And it could cost the town plenty of revenue too, because drilling could more than double the tax base. Plus, Dryden's now been sued by a Colorado company that invested $5.1 million to drill on more than 22, 000 acres of land in town. Anschutz Exploration cites a provision in New York's oil and gas law that says it supersedes local laws. The legislature wanted statewide regulation, says Adam Schultz of the Oil and Gas Association of New York, to prevent the waste of an important resource.

ADAM SCHULTZ OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION OF NEW YORK: If the best geologic location for a well is within the town of Dryden, let's say, close to its border, but then the town of Dryden doesn't allow the well to be placed there, you then don't have maximum efficiency in the recovery of the resource.

CHANATRY: But Cornell University Law Professor Eduardo Penalver says the towns' positions have precedent in a state mining law with almost identical language.

EDUARDO PENALVER: The smart money is on the courts interpreting the oil and gas law the same way that they've already interpreted the mining law, as allowing local governments to continue to zone hydraulic fracturing the way they can zone mining, but not be able to regulate the details of its operation.

CHANATRY: The results of Tuesday's town board election could determine if Dryden amends its zoning again. If so, gas drilling could begin once the state of New York issues permits, possibly as early as next year. For NPR News, I'm David Chanatry.

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