Ban on fracking: whose rights are being protected?
Sunday January 12, 2014 | By:Ronald Fraser |
By a vote of 9-2, the Erie County Legislature recently passed a local law banning 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.
Mr. Joseph Lorigo, one of the two dissenting votes, called the vote political posturing. I would call it political common sense. Mr. 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 state is in its sixth year. Anyone paying attention knows the environment and human health risks associated with unconventional, heavy industrial gas drilling methods. The question now is, what to do about it?
In fact, this debate is best understood as a tug-a-war underway 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 interests of the oil and gas industry.
Importantly, all elected members of the Erie County Legislature – and legislators in all New York municipalities and the state legislature – are duty-bound by the New York State Constitution to enact laws that protect the safety, health and well-being of their citizens.
To date, elected officials in 71 municipalities in New York have taken their duty seriously and have passed laws banning industrial 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 of 2012, the Assembly passed a bill 93-46, clarifying the right of towns, villages and other municipalities to use their home rule authority to pass local laws banning gas drilling in their jurisdictions. An identical Senate bill never got to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.
Campaign contributions help explain the fate of fracking bills in Albany. Between 2007 and 2011, oil and gas industry campaign contributions to Senate legislators was double that for Assembly members.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, a non-elected, executive branch agency in Albany, has earned high marks for carefully evaluating the environmental and human health risks, before deciding whether or not to allow high-volume fracking in New York.
By law, the primary oil and gas-related mission of DEC is to promote and 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 general public and the oil and gas industry are at odds, the DEC is likely to tilt in favor of the oil and gas 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 industrial demands of the oil and gas industry.