By Ronald Fraser
By a vote of 9 to 2, the Erie County Legislature recently banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and the disposal of its toxic wastes, on county property. Seven other New York counties have also banned this type of drilling on county-owned lands.
Joseph Lorigo, one of the two dissenting votes, called the vote political posturing. I would call it political common sense. Lorigo also said, “We should not be shutting the door on an industry without getting all the facts.”
Wait a minute. The debate on hydraulic fracturing in New York is in its sixth year. Anyone paying attention knows the risks to the environment and human health associated with this heavy industrial gas drilling. The question now is what to do about it.
In fact, this debate is best understood as a tug-of-war under way among lawmakers in towns, villages and counties throughout New York. Some elected officials are looking out for the public’s well-being while others are looking out for the oil and gas industry.
Importantly, all members of the Erie County Legislature – and legislators in all New York municipalities and the State Legislature – are bound by the state constitution to protect the safety, health and well-being of their citizens.
To date, elected officials in 71 municipalities have taken their duty seriously and have passed laws banning fracking, including the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and the Town of Wales.
The track record of state legislators is not so good. In May 2012, the Assembly passed a bill clarifying the right of towns, villages and other municipalities to use their home rule authority to pass local laws banning fracking. An identical Senate bill – and related bills – never got to the Senate floor for a vote.
Could the Senate’s reluctance be related to campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry? Between 2007 and 2011, a Common Cause study found that oil and gas industry campaign donations going to Senate legislators was double that for Assembly legislators.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, a non-elected, executive branch agency in Albany, has earned high marks for taking a close look at the environmental and human health risks before deciding whether or not to allow fracking in New York.
But don’t forget, by law, the primary oil- and gas-related mission of the DEC is to regulate the development and production of oil and gas resources in the state – but to act in such a way as to protect the “rights” of landowners and the general public. When the rights of the public and the oil and gas industry are at odds, the DEC may very well tilt toward the needs of the industry.
That is why local laws are so important. Only at that level can New Yorkers count on their elected legislators to place the state constitution above the demands of the oil and gas industry.
Ronald Fraser is a member of the Town of Colden Environmental Board.