Monday, December 5, 2011

Ryan to the Rescue: Behind the Binghamton mayor’s offer to Dimock

The story of natural gas drilling gone awry in Dimock, Pa., continues to be a political flashpoint in communities along both sides of New York’s border with Pennsylvania.

An offer by Binghamton, New York to aid residents in Dimock, Pennsylvania is the latest example of how attitudes about developing the Marcellus Shale are likely influenced by where you live, and how much land you own. These factors were likely at play in the political calculation of Matt Ryan. Ryan is a drilling opponent and mayor of Binghamton – a small city in the Southern Tier of New York -- who recently offered to arrange water deliveries by the city to residents of Dimock, a rural township 20 miles across the state border in the heart of a natural well field being developed by Cabot Oil & Gas. Ryan volunteered the city to provide emergency relief to about a dozen residents in particular whose wells have tested positive for pollution, which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has linked to nearby drilling operations. Cabot, under a DEP order, had supplied water to these homes for several years under Governor Ed Rendell’s administration. Now, under Governor Tom Corbett, the agency has declared that Cabot can stop the deliveries because the company has effectively settled the matter with residents by offering them mitigation systems and payments worth twice their property value. Lawyers for 11 plaintiffs suing Cabot for damages related to the pollution disagree.

Ryan, who has been opposed to allowing development of the Marcellus Shale in New York without more environmental review, likely saw the opportunity for a political statement that would not get lost in the prolonged and often hostile battle of words from advocates on both sides of the issue. His move to provide “mutual aid” (commonly used for hurricane relief and other disasters) certainly did the trick, as it landed him, and his view in an Associated Press report featured in today’s Wall Street Journal  (among other places). “I’ll admit, it’s mostly symbolic,” Ryan told Steve Reilly, of the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin on Saturday.  Not surprisingly, Ryan’s motives were attacked by critics in both states. Some Binghamton City Council members derided Ryan’s offer to Dimock as his “cause of the month.” Town of Dimock leaders (to the dismay of affected residents) have been reluctant to accept Ryan’s gift-wrapped hot potato, and some pro-drilling advocates characterized it as a political stunt.

The Ryan proposal is the latest chapter of a story that grows more political by the day. Some argue politicization of the debate over developing the Marcellus Shale and other domestic gas reserves is a bad thing. I can’t see that, though. To the extent it facilitates the public discussion and awareness of issues, even in stirring passions of people on opposite sides, getting a broad section of the populous interested and engaged in government affairs might be painful, but it’s always helpful. 

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