DRYDEN – This town just outside Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region is not the kind of place where one would expect a grass-roots uprising. Even its promotional brochure makes it sound sleepy, listing the main attractions as “a few large dairy farms, some crop farms and several horse ranches.”
But Dryden could soon be synonymous with something more than animals and agriculture. In August 2011, the town passed a zoning ordinance effectively forbidding hydraulic fracturing, the controversial gas extraction method also known as “fracking.”
The ordinance, passed after a feisty local lobbying effort, prompted a lawsuit now being mulled by New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, whose ruling could settle the long-simmering issue of whether the state’s municipalities can ban the drilling process.
Dryden was not the first place to act against fracking, nor the first place where such bans have been subject to legal challenges. Bans are increasingly common in cities, towns and even counties across the country, including Pittsburgh, which enacted a ban in 2010, and Highland Park, N.J., a New York City suburb, where the Borough Council outlawed fracking Sept. 17.
While some of those votes are more symbolic than substantive – Highland Park was not likely to become a gas-drilling center – in the case of Dryden, the stakes could be high.
“It’s going to decide the future of the oil and gas industry in the state of New York,” said Thomas West, a lawyer for Norse Energy Corp. USA, which has sought to have the ban overturned and will file legal briefs on the appeal Monday.
State review drags on
That Dryden and other local governments in New York have decided to take matters in their own hands is not surprising. Fracking has been the subject of five years of evaluation by state officials, including a continuing, and some say strategically delayed, “health impact analysis” by the State Department of Health – a process whose pace has been criticized by both supporters and opponents of fracking.
“This is not about a DOH study,” said Brad Gill, the executive director of Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which has lobbied to legalize the drilling technique. “This is about indecisive leadership in the state.”
The study was ordered by the Department of Environmental Conservation, an agency controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has said the health review will guide his decision on whether to allow fracking.
Supporters say the mining method could bring thousands of jobs to economically depressed regions in the state’s Southern Tier, a region along the northern border of Pennsylvania.
But Cuomo, a Democrat, has also faced strong opposition to the method from environmentalists and others worried about its impact on watersheds and aquifers. Fracking uses water and chemicals to release natural gas trapped in deeply buried shale deposits.
Polls, meanwhile, show no consensus on the issue. A Siena College poll conducted last week showed that 43 percent of voters statewide opposed fracking, while 38 percent approved of the method.
Some critics of the process have suggested that the Cuomo administration simply does not want to make a decision because New York voters, who will decide next year whether he gets a second term, are sharply divided.
Asked for comment on the delay, the governor’s press office directed a reporter to comments Cuomo made in a radio interview in August.
“Look, fracking has obvious economic benefits,” the governor said then. “Every area that has participated in fracking has had increased commercial activity, and it has an economic boost effect. Question is, is there a cost to the environment, to health, etc.? And that’s what has to be assessed, and that’s what has to be weighed, and that’s what we’re going through now.”
‘We are country people’
For her part, Martha Ferger, 89, a longtime Dryden resident and retired biochemist, said she feared that the governor had been “just playing it safe so far,” though she still had hope.
“Maybe he can be seen as a national hero that preserved one spot in the country that isn’t ruined,” she said.
Ferger is a member of the Dryden Resources Awareness Coalition, which formed to work for the town’s ban in 2010, even as companies were signing mining leases in and around Dryden. The town sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, believed to be one of the world’s biggest natural gas fields.
One of those who signed was Marie McRae, who boards horses on 13 acres just outside Dryden and signed a five-year fracking lease in 2008 after companies pursued her.
“It’s not like we went chasing them,” McRae said. “They had been calling us and showing up at the farm.”
But McRae said she regretted her decision after she looked into the drilling process, fearing not only a loss of water quality but also the impact on Dryden’s small-town atmosphere: its side-by-side churches, hand-painted signs and colonnaded porches. (Like the fictional town in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Dryden even has a business run by one George Bailey.)
All of that, the coalition feared, would be endangered by the ancillary impacts of mining, including truck traffic and air pollution.
“We are country people,” said Deborah Cipolla-Dennis, another coalition member. “We are not people who chose to live in the city.”
Cipolla-Dennis and her wife, Joanne, and their two pet goats, Austin and Jet, moved to Dryden in 2007 to build a haystack-walled, environmentally friendly roundhouse at the edge of town. They, too, received a pitch from a representative of a mining company that offered $3,000 an acre.
“I said, ‘It’s not my plan to develop fossil fuels here; I’m going to develop self-powering homes,’ ” Joanne Cipolla-Dennis recalled.
Dryden, a town of about 15,000 in Tompkins County, is a mix of farms and small businesses and is home to commuters to nearby Ithaca, which weathered the recession better than most places in the state.
Lower courts supportive
Other places, however, have been much more eager for the jobs and licensing fees that legalized fracking would bring. And the opposition here was far from universal.
Mary Ann Sumner, the town supervisor, said she initially was intrigued by the concept of fracking.
“Our relatively unattractive shale deposits were becoming attractive,” she said.
But she was swayed by the group’s campaign, which included packing board meetings, advertising its position in local papers and collecting more than 1,500 signatures.
In the end, the Town Board voted unanimously to change the zoning. The lawsuit followed in short order.
Pro-fracking groups say that local intervention is counterproductive, likening it to needing a different driver’s license for each county.
“We can’t operate with a patchwork of acceptance,” said Gill, who added that the economic impact of the de facto moratorium and local bans have been extreme.
Indeed, the parent company of Norse Energy Corp USA, the plaintiff in the Dryden lawsuit, announced this month that it would liquidate the company, something that its lawyer, West, said made it “the poster child for the adverse impact” of such bans.
“The natural gas industry has left New York State like lemmings,” he said.
So far, lower state courts have sided with Dryden, saying it was within its rights to establish zoning restrictions. But in August, the Court of Appeals agreed to take up the Dryden case and another one involving a fracking ban in Middlefield, in Otsego County.