New York state has finally done something that isn’t entirely cringe-inducing. The New York State Court of Appeals has ruled: they will uphold the authority of the towns of Dryden and Middlefield to use zoning ordinances to control land use, stymieing the efforts of gas and oil companies to drill in their area.
Regardless of where you or I stand on the “fracking” debate, the ruling is a desirable move in the direction of decentralized power. It allows towns to weigh the benefits and costs of allowing the gas drilling process in their area. You know, instead of Albany calling the shots and making a one-size-fits-all decision that “fracking” is bad or good for all towns and cities across the state.
But first, let me explain. I assume that if you do not live in a town that sits atop the Marcellus shale—or any of the other shale gas basins in the US—the uproar over “fracking” probably sounds like a distant, confusing echo.
“Fracking” is a drilling technique that combines hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling and is used to extract gas and oil from shale rock. A voluminous amount of a high-pressure water mixture is pumped deep underground to create fissures in the shale rock, thereby releasing gas and other resources. In other words, it’s a specialized way of extracting natural gas.
But not everyone loves fracking. Popular Mechanics reports that natural gas is cleaner than the traditional oil and gasoline, but a small percentage of the shale gas escapes during the drilling process. Small tremors, heavy water usage, and groundwater contamination are some of the other frequently cited risks that are of concern among the anti-“fracking” crowd. There have also been a few documented cases of water pollution. (But no flammable tap-water… sorry Josh Fox.) Naturally (see what I did there?), according to the oil and gas industry and other proponents, some of the harms put forward by anti-fracking groups are overstated.
Since “fracking” has been a divisive environmental and political issue, it makes sense why some areas might want to limit or ban it while residents of other towns might embrace this energy-extracting technology. Towns should be well within their rights to oppose natural gas drilling if they think these problems are not worth the risk, even if the threats do not appear to be as drastic as New Yorkers Against Fracking makes them out to be. A town may still decide—despite the potential environmental downsides—that the direct economic benefits offset the costs and risks. The economic prospects might be especially attractive to economically depressed towns in Upstate NY. In areas where it has been permitted, fracking has created jobs and reduced the price of energy.
It should be up to communities, not than state governments, to decide whether or not the potential economic benefits outweigh the potential harms.
Even with this court decision, it’s unclear what the future of fracking is in New York. The Court of Appeals’ decision was not based on merit of potential harms or benefits. Governor Cuomo continues to dither on the issue, and the de facto statewide moratorium on the process still stands, pending an assessment of the health risks of fracking. With that said, NY state has not implemented an outright ban. Rather, the moratorium prohibits high-volume fracking.
There is a lingering possibility that the moratorium will be lifted several years from now—however remote that seems. If it happens, several towns across the state have already passed bans or moratoriums. In contrast, the city of Binghamton struck down an appeal to ban fracking. These actions took place prior to the ruling and without any prodding from the state government. Even if that is how things pan out in the distant future, I do not think it should trump the power of towns to decide whether or not they want the natural gas boom in their backyards (pun intended).