After ongoing battles between communities and natural gas companies, individual towns now have secured the right to ban fracking within their own limits. It’s a moderate eco victory that essentially dictates: you don’t have to stop drilling, but you can’t drill here.
On a day marked by discouraging decisions by the United States Supreme Court, New York’s Supreme Court provided something for New York state environmentalists to get excited about: a 5-2 decision allowing towns to establish zoning laws that keep out fracking companies.
Private companies had filed a lawsuit against a pair of rural towns, Otsego County’s Middlefield and Tompkins County’s Dryden, claiming that their bans contradicted New York state’s existing oil and gas laws. Although the appeal was directed at these two towns in particular, there are many throughout New York that have passed similar resolutions against fracking, so the ruling has much wider implications.
Those hoping the ruling would in some way include a condemnation of fracking itself will be somewhat disappointed. The judges say they based their decision solely on reaffirming towns’ rights to make their own zoning choices. In the ruling, judges explicitly stated, “These appeals are not about whether hydrofracking is beneficial or detrimental to the economy, environment, or energy needs of New York, and we pass no judgment on its merits. These are major policy questions for the coordinate branches of government to resolve.”
Still, it’s a net gain for the environmental community. Thus far, grassroots efforts have been most successful at countering fracking, so empowering small towns to tell natural gas companies to take a hike will hopefully make logistics even more difficult for the industry.
“It’s really, really great for the local municipalities who need to defend themselves against these big national and international corporate interests,” said Susan Zimet, supervisor for New Paltz, another town that opted to ban fracking a couple of years ago.
On the flip side, Karen Moreau, representing the Petroleum Council, called the ruling “a real tragedy for thousands of impoverished farmers and rural people.” Despite her clear affiliation with the natural gas industry, she insisted that the real losers were private citizens and landowners who wouldn’t be allowed to receive payoffs from the gas companies to drill on their land.
A couple of New York’s judges did agree with Moreau, however. The two dissenting justices argued that the towns’ bans were too broad and would have far-reaching repercussions on other industries, as well.
As it stands, no fracking is currently occurring in the state of New York; six years ago, the governor suspended the activity altogether until research could address potential safety issues. Though officials haven’t set a deadline for a final decision on the matter to be made, individual towns have resolved to preemptively ban it in their own backyards anyway. With this latest ruling, these towns can ensure their no fracking zoning rules can stay on the books regardless of what the state government ultimately decides.
Of course, individual fracking bans alone are not enough to protect communities. Arbitrary town borders do not limit the repercussions of fracking, particularly water contamination. If a neighboring town okays fracking next to a town that has banned it, both will likely face the consequences.
That’s why eco-activists will continue to call on New York’s government to permanently stop fracking altogether. Join more than 15,000 other Care2 members in signing this petition to demand a statewide ban.