As the New York moratorium on fracking continues to hang in jeopardy, towns within the state are taking it upon themselves to issue fracking bans locally, what may become a last-ditch effort to keep fracking out if the moratorium is lifted. Over 20 cities, including Buffalo, Ithaca, Syracuse, and others in the Finger Lakes regions, have passed bans through the “municipal home rule” to keep fracking outside of their city limits.
The question, though, is whether the state and the courts will uphold the cities' rulings.
The home rule is designed to allow residents to pass laws that protect their health and environment from invading industries like oil and gas development. There is an abundance of evidence that fracking threatens drinking watersheds and wells, releases radiation, causes major sickness and disease, and even could contribute to earthquakes.
New York City's drinking water is protected, with lawmakers vowing to keep drilling operations contained to areas outside the watershed. However, there is still concern that if fracking operations cause major earthquakes, it could shatter the city's antiquated water tunnels that deliver drinking water from upstate.
In order to protect people who live outside the city, where legislators are eager to lift the moratorium and start drilling, local bans may be the only option left.
Yet a few months ago, the town of Dryden, NY, after recently passing a local ban, was slapped with a lawsuit from Anschutz Exploration Corporation, an oil and natural gas company that had already spent millions and leased thousands of acres in the area.
Their legal team is claiming that regulatory authority of oil and gas development goes to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a state agency that, as they believe, should supersede any local ordinances passed. The city of Dryden is arguing that the law can dictate how, but not when or if the company is allowed to operate. Depending on which side the judge agrees with, it could set a major precedent for the rest of the state.
In another case, the city of Morgantown, WV was not so lucky when it enacted a ban against fracking and was promptly sued by Northeast Natural Energy. The judge ruled in favor of the energy company, remarking that the state has exclusive control over oil and gas development, and that they “didn't establish that fracking threatened the community’s right to clean air and water.”
So the question remains - can state governments overrule the choices of local governments when it comes down to the health and safety of its citizens? New York State Senator James Seward thinks not - he's proposed a bill that will allow cities to keep fracking out of their borders without being usurped by the state.