“Lawyers might be interested in this dragging on. But it gets expensive and it’s a long process,” Slottje said. “There’s no quicker or easier way than having the course go to the Court of Appeals.”
On this point, West and Slottje have no differences. “That’s a rare moment of agreement between us,” West said. “This will be definitive. However the Court of Appeals rules, that’s it. ”
Slottje and a colleague, attorney Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice, have publically debated the case with West on various radio shows and at law clinics over the last year. I have participated in more than one of these events as a facilitator, and I’m now in the fortunate position of being invited to participate as a moderator in an upcoming clinic at the Albany Law School that will feature various legal points of reference on the future of drilling in New York State. The morning program promises a look at legal factors that will influence shale gas development, ranging from health impacts to property rights, with the afternoon session featuring the ground breaking Home Rule case as it advances to an even bigger stage. (I will moderate a panel in the morning program, and Capitol Pressroom host Susan Arbetter will moderate a debate between Goldberg and West in the afternoon session.)
The question at the core of the Home Rule case -- Norse Energy Corporation vs Town of Dryden et al. -- is whether the state’s Oil Gas and Solutions Mining law supersedes local laws when it comes to “regulation” of oil and gas operations. Lower courts have ruled in favor of the towns’ argument – based on precedent in similar cases involving jurisdiction over sand and gravel mines -- that banning something is different than regulating it. In other words, a local government can have a say of where and if gas wells are sited based on local land use plans, but not how they operate.
More than an abstract academic discussion, the outcome will influence the local landscapes for future generations. More than 150 municipalities have passed a ban or moratorium on gas drilling or fracking, according to FracTracker. It’s an area where the issues of fracking – with all its national and global ramifications – is brought tangibly down to the town board level. Whenever people – for or against fracking -- can see such a direct return on their civic engagement, it produces the kind of stories – stories with impact -- that journalistic sensibilities relish.
Both Slottje and West are cautious about reading much about the odds of winning or losing into the court’s decision to hear the case. There is no pattern in former rulings that suggests the Court of Appeals’ willingness to hear a given case predisposes it to overturning the decision of lower courts, with the record showing it upholds decisions with the approximate frequency that it overturns them.
“I think you can only read into this that it’s important for the court to clarify this,” West said.
The matter will be decided by the seven Court of Appeals judges, appointed by the governor to 14-year terms. (See their bios here.) The ruling is expected to come in the middle of next year, but the work has already begun. The schedule is yet to be announced, but if the case follows normal course of events, the petitioners, Norse Energy and Cooperstown Holstein Corp. (represented by West) have 10 days from the Aug. 29 announcement to file a preliminary statement of appeal, and 60 days after that to file briefs. Briefs from the towns of Dryden and Middlefield (represented by Slottje and Goldberg) are due 45 days after the industry’s briefs are filed. That means all the paperwork would have to be filed by the end of the year. Oral arguments would typically come five months later, or in May. Decisions are typically issued 40 days after oral arguments, which would be July.
The case could drag out longer, but that is unlikely, attorneys noted. The Court of Appeals, unlike other branches of government, has a reputation for sticking to schedules. There are other legal issues yet to be tested in courts, including the state’s (still undecided) administrative approach to regulate, permit, or ban shale gas wells while balancing public health and environmental concerns. By this time next year, however, the home rule case will be settled, even though fracking will undoubtedly remain a contentious political issue, with pending legislative and gubernatorial elections and an open door for legislative intervention