Monday, June 30, 2014

New York’s high court upholds Home Rule bans ... Decision complicates natural gas prospects

It’s settled. There will be no fracking in New York communities such as Dryden and Middlefield – serene and scenic places that have passed rules that find shale gas development incompatible with local land use ordinances.

The three-year battle over jurisdictional control over the industry ended today when the New York Court of Appeals upheld lower court decisions that cedes control over where and if shale gas development can happen from state to local governments. That’s a landmark victory for Home Rule advocates, including residents of more than 170 upstate communities that have passed moratoriums or bans on the controversial process.

But the future of fracking in the Empire state remains more unsettled than ever. All of the communities with fracking bans happen to be outside areas with the strongest prospects for shale gas development. In Southern Tier counties bordering the booming gas fields in northern Pennsylvania, many local governments either support fracking, or have no enforceable policy to prevent it. For every place like Dryden, there is a place like Sanford, a rural community near the Pennsylvania border that sits over 50,0000 acres of the Marcellus Shale, for which XTO Energy – a subsidiary of Exxon Mobile – has paid farmers $110 million just for the chance to test.

Sanford has no land use restriction, and is governed by a town council eager to see  rigs and roughnecks role across the Pennsylvania border and clear pads in the meadows, fields and woodlots of Southern Tier farms. And according to some who have been engaged in the fight since it began with the leasing rush of 2008, the prospect of drilling in these places is more imminent following today’s court ruling.

The court decision in effect provides legal sanction to a plan proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in the summer of 2012 to begin issuing permits on a trial basis in areas where communities and industry favor development. As reported by Danny Hakim of the New York Times in June, 2012: “Cuomo’s administration is now trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area, while also honoring the opposition expressed in some communities, and limiting the ire of environmentalists, who worry that hydrofracking could contaminate groundwater and lead to other hazards.”

Walter Hang, a policy analyst who runs Toxic Targeting, an environmental data firm in Ithaca, said Cuomo’s plan from 2012, combined with today’s court ruling, moves New York state a step closer to fracking in these places. “Today’s decision serves up the Southern Tier on a silver platter to allow shale gas development to begin,” he said. “Sure, it prevents fracking in some areas. But it allows it in the five counties along the Southern Tier where it’s most likely to begin. It’s the classic double-edged sword.”

Cuomo’s plan in 2012 to begin fracking in certain localities but not others drew support for those pinning the promise of economic development on the drilling industry, and drew rallies and protests by anti-frackers, who characterized the fracking trials as “sacrifice zones.” Cuomo has been mostly silent on the issue since then.

Not everybody shares Hang’s outlook. Some anti-fracking activists expect that New York’s ruling will not only discourage shale gas development in New York but will also encourage other municipalities throughout the country to establish land use restrictions. (See comments of Mary Ann Sumner, the Dryden Supervisor who helped organize the ban.)  And Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, called the court decision “one more nail in the coffin” for fracking in the state. Gill’s view, often echoed by other industry supporters, is that drill operators will be less likely to commit capital to area that lacks regulatory uniformity and predictability. There is truth to both of those views, but they overlook the fact that the industry, first and foremost, will follow the geology. Wildcaters, in particular, are likely to seek out niches in unexplored territories, like the Southern Tier of New York.

As with most policy calculations, science and law are fundamental factors, but politics will be the decider.  The Legislature could pass a bill clarifying ambiguous language over the state’s role in extraction operations on which the Home Rule case was built. It’s also possible that the Legislature could ban fracking altogether, although anti-fracking bills passed repeatedly in the Assembly over the years are yet to fly in the Senate.

For now the decision remains firmly in the hands of the governor, who can at anytime enact or withdraw the policy review of fracking, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. The 1,000-plus page document is as complicated and bureaucratic as its name suggests,  and it's been on hold for years.  Don’t expect that to happen before election. Rocking the boat on this hypersensitive issue would certainly alienate the governor’s progressive base. But after election-day, he has plenty of politic wiggle room and, with today’s Court of Appeals ruling, a clearer view of the legal landscape.