Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Insert Drilling into Slumbering Rural Towns

Last month, Candor Town Supervisor Bob Riggs told our town planning board to revise the town's Comprehensive Plan. Because, as he stated to the local reporter, "... about two years ago we voted on [and passed] the resolution about natural gas development in the town and in my opinion if you read what we approved alongside the comprehensive plan, it’s in conflict. Those two things ought to be consistent." 

His solution? If a mostly pro-drilling town board passes a resolution crafted by outsiders (Joint Landowners Coalition) and pushed by board members who have leased their land for gas drilling (conflict of interest), then of course the planning board should change the Comprehensive Plan to align with this "new reality".

At issue: the planning board didn't write the Comprehensive Plan all by itself. It was a community effort that took more than a year and involved town-wide meetings. Also at issue: at the core of the Comprehensive Plan is the people's desire for a small town environment. A survey of the residents showed that they like open space; that they moved to Candor for the beauty and privacy it affords. 

So when the planning board and community members met and drew up a comprehensive strategy, these were the goals they included in this document that would guide town planning into the new century: 

  • to protect public health, safety, welfare and morals 
  • to preserve open spaces 
  • to preserve and enhance small town/rural qualities and values 
  • to encourage and promote the development of new employment opportunities especially in enterprises that enhance and do not compromise the rural, small town nature

They prefaced the entire document with a mission statement that concludes, "... we are committed to being stewards of our children and the elderly and of the precious finite resources that must be shared with future generations." After a decade the plan was updated, and new goals added that included protecting the aquifer, open spaces, land use patterns, rural character, soils and agricultural land.

But with the recent Court decision upholding a town's right to determine where and whether drilling may occur within town limits, there's renewed pressure on rural, un-zoned towns to declare that they are willing to be fracked. Big towns, too, as Tom Wilber points out in his recent post. 

So last month a couple of us attended the Candor Planning Board's workshop meeting to see what their process would entail. We asked whether they would do a community survey. Their response: why? They suggested that industrialized unconventional drilling would fit under "light industry". Given the freedom to revise, without community input, the majority of the members on Candor's planning board would toss the Comprehensive Plan under the fracking bus.

What they don't see on their drives to Pennsylvania, and what they aren't hearing from folks who are getting royalty payments, is that drilling is a Large Industrial Activity. It is not compatible with beauty and privacy, clean water, fresh air, and the sound of sweet birds singing. 

  • Unconventional industrialized gas drilling contaminates drinking water. At least four states confirm this. 
  • Unconventional industrialized gas drilling can make the earth shake beneath your feet. Just last weekend Oklahoma had 11 earthquakes caused by injecting drilling wastewater into disposal wells. As any NY geologist will tell you, we've got faults beneath our feet.
  • Unconventional industrialized gas drilling is dangerous. Wells explode. Compressors explode. Pipelines explode. Methane leaks into homes and fields.

Somehow these things don't jive with the "peaceful rural living" that brings residents to our town.


  1. Folks,

    Walter Hang. the principal of Toxics Targeting, is quoted as saying “Today’s decision serves up the Southern Tier on a silver platter to allow shale gas development to begin,” ( tomwilber.blogspot, June 30, 2014).

    So, what happens in towns that do not have a ban but do have zoning? There are several right on the NY/PA border in Broome County: Windsor, Kirkwood, Conklin, Town of Binghamton, and Vestal. All are above the likely most productive part of the Marcellus shale. None have a ban or any other limitation on where drilling could occur.

    Despite vigorous efforts in several Southern Tier towns, no ban effort in the most gassy areas of NY has been successful. A common boilerplate answer to those who wish to limit gas drilling has been to vote for a different town board. Of course that is a very long-term strategy, and so far has been tried relatively unsuccessfully.

    The more immediate answer lies in the full answer to the question that Susan Arbetter (Capitol Pressroom, July 2, 2014) asked of Attorney Tom West, the lead plaintiff attorney for the Lawsuit: "now what?" West had recently said if they lost, "it would be over." Meaning that shale gas drilling in NY would no longer be economically feasible.

    However, pivoting smartly, he told Arbetter that indeed there was a rational NY plan for the drillers he represents, but it was secret because he did not want to divulge strategy. In other words, it was not over, and they were not just going away.

    Here is their Plan B.

    Governor Cuomo and the DEC some time ago raised a difficult issue, namely, fracking would perhaps be OK in those towns who "wish" to be fracked, but how would we know which ones they are? To address this the pro-drillers have crafted a "zoning overlay" strategy.

    This plan would have each town modify their Comprehensive Plan, if they have one, to be somewhat fracking friendly, and then develop and legislate zoning overlays. These would, if passed, clearly identify the towns and areas in towns where fracking was OK. There would be no "frack me" resolutions passed quietly and quickly at Town Board meetings with zero attendance as seemed to be the case a couple of years ago.

    But there would also be no direct referendum, of any sort, of town residents to get their views. This is striking since, for several years, none of the many independent polls of upstate NY and of Broome and nearby Counties have indicated a meaningful majority in favor of gas drilling. None. Also, in the gas drilling Coalition for Towns of Binghamton and Conklin, the membership indicating that they might wish to be part of a fracking/drilling unit is only between 20 and 25% of the population - probably very similar in other border towns.

    What is the evidence for this grand zoning scheme that many towns would be encouraged to use? (continued in next Scobie comment)

  2. (continued from previous Scobie comment)

    First, the Town of Conklin, one of the Broome County NY/PA border towns above a possibly productive part of the Marcellus shale, just finished revising their Comprehensive Plan, and have indicated that they plan to institute such "frack me" and "frack free" zoning overlays. They appear to be the first to use the scheme.

    Second, about two months ago, the Broome County Government convened a Marcellus legal workshop for municipal officials. There were nine attorneys from the local firm of Coughlin and Gerhart (attorneys Begeal, Blaise, Jacobs, Kline, McKertich, Merahan, Sacco, Valenzuela, and VanWhy). The set of presentations was aimed directly at how and why towns should get ready for drilling. Attorney Robert McKertich briefed specifically on the notion of allowing drilling in some parts and not in others - i.e., zoning overlays.

    Third, based on confidential and off-the-record information from an insider in a leasing coalition, the existence of this "secret" plan was confirmed.

    To summarize, towns that "want" drilling will probably have to go through a substantial zoning revision, or face challenges to allowing drilling, especially in any residential zones. The settled Lawsuit tells us that Boards need not fear lawsuits for restricting drilling from disappointed drillers or landowners. And, once zoning changes are made, landowners and drillers won't need to fear the awful possibility of a full ban being enacted quickly by a 3 to 5 vote and ruining their business plans.

    However, unless town boards create a coherent and transparent process that includes broadly consulting all of their residents, the usually boring, complex, and uninteresting zoning changes could drastically and almost silently change the nature of their town.

    Stanley R Scobie, Binghamton, NY

    1. These legal maneuvers are pointless without leases.

      End of June, in Broome County, the Kirkwood Gas Coalition voted 3 to 1 to accept an offer by a drilling company of an option of $50/acre. Should Cuomo permit drilling, the option is for $2,500/acre of signing bonus and 18-20% royalty with no deductions.

      First agreement in years, probably since the Deposit/Sanford deal before the governor's moratorium. Indicates that there is interest, at least in the best prospects close to the PA border. Kirkwood is SE of Binghamton along I-88.

  3. Thanks for all this information. You certainly face a great challenge where you live, but I think as time goes on, many, many more will be faced with the same challenge.