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Town officials in New York say they hope a ruling by the state’s top court will inspire cities elsewhere in the country to resist efforts to use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in their jurisdictions.
The New York Court of Appeals ruled 5-2 on June 30 that the towns of Dryden and Middlefield were within their rights to use zoning laws to keep energy companies from fracking within their borders.
“I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what's right for their own communities,” Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner said in a statement.
Fracking involves injecting underground formations of porous shale with water and chemicals under high pressure to free oil or gas deposits that otherwise would be inaccessible. Lately, the practice has increased to the point where the rise in crude oil extraction from U.S. shale has been lessening the effect of the fighting in Iraq on the price of oil.
Despite its economic benefits, critics say it contaminates ground water, depletes local fresh water, contaminates local land and groundwater, potentially degrades local air quality, and could even trigger earthquakes.
In 2011, Dryden and Middlefield passed zoning laws forbidding fracking in their jurisdictions. Anschutz Exploration Corp. of Colorado then challenged the Dryden law in court, and soon another energy company, Cooperstown Holstein Corp., filed its own court challenge against Middlefield’s law.
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In 2013, Norse Energy took over the handling of the Anschutz lawsuit after a lower state court ruled in favor of Dryden case and Anschutz was forced to file for bankruptcy because it had invested heavily in the Dryden project.
Norse’s lawyer, Thomas West, expressed disappointment in the top court’s decision, saying, “It's another nail in the coffin for drilling in New York because there are very few companies that will be interested in making a major investment in New York without certainty at the local level.”
Fracking in New York has been on hold since 2008 when then Governor David Patterson directed the state’s department of environmental conservation to conduct a review of the practice. The review is still under way, under now Governor Andrew Cuomo, and there is no deadline for a conclusion.
In the June 30 decision, the Court of Appeals didn’t address the potential value or dangers of fracking, but simply upheld the towns’ “home rule” authority to regulate the use of lands in their jurisdictions.
Judge Victoria Graffeo, who wrote on behalf of the court’s majority, said Dryden and Middlefield justly determined “that gas drilling would permanently alter and diversely affect the deliberately cultivated small-town character of their communities.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com