Fracking Gets Its Own Occupy Movement
Posted on Jan 25, 2012
By Ellen Cantarow, TomDispatch
“When I went to Dimock,” says Slottje, “I saw well drilling, huge trucks, muddy crisscrossing pipeline paths cutting through the woods, disposal pits, sites of diesel spills, dusty coatings on plants, noisy compressor stations—you name it. So I decided to put my legal background to work to prevent the same thing from happening where I lived. We’d been corporate lawyers before. We know the sort of resources the energy corporations have. The grassroots people have nothing. And they have this behemoth coming at them.”
In May 2009, the Slottjes became full-time pro bono lawyers for the movement. One of their first services was to reinterpret New York’s constitutional home rule provision, which had allowed local ordinances to trump state laws until 1981. In that year, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Mineral Resources exempted gas corporations from local restrictions.
“I spent thousands of hours on the research,” says Slottje. “And then last August we were brave enough to go public and say the emperor has no clothes.” The Slottjes’ reinterpretation of the provision was simple enough: the state regulates the gas industry; towns and villages can’t regulate it, but what they can do is keep its operations off their land through the use of zoning ordinances.
Zoning Out Fracking
Square, Site wide
The board members opposed fracking, but couldn’t see how to prevent it. While the board talked with the Slottjes, CCU activists drafted a petition. If enough registered Ulysses voters signed on, the board would have the popular backing it needed for declaring a ban. Ann Furman, a retired schoolteacher who helped found CCU and write the document, recalls, “The petition was pretty specific: ‘We the undersigned want to ban hydrofracking in the town of Ulysses.’” A six-month-long door-to-door campaign followed.
“There was a lot of education going on in Ulysses at the town board and at forums, as we were going house to house. Even people who would sign the petition would say, ‘Tell me a little bit more about it.’ And in that next 15 to 20 minutes you would do a whole lot more education.” In the end, 1,500 out of 3,000 registered voters signed. This past summer the Ulysses town board voted to ban fracking.
Middlefield, 119 miles east of Ulysses and home of the grassroots group Middlefield Neighbors, enacted a similar ban. So did Dryden, 22 miles east of Ulysses. An out-of-state gas corporation that leased land for drilling in Dryden is suing to get the zoning ban declared illegal. A Middlefield landowner is suing that town on the same basis. The cases are pending.
Meanwhile bans proliferate. Six upstate New York counties have zoned out fracking, including Binghamton, which declared a ban in December. An organic brewery in Cooperstown, the Ommegang, mobilized 300 other businesses, including Cooperstown’s Chamber of Commerce, to support more bans in the region.
Chefs for the Marcellus, a group headed by Food Network star Mario Batali, has urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking at the state level. “Call it home-rule democracy,” says Adrian Kuzminsky, chair of the Cooperstown-based organization Sustainable Otsego. “If local communities can seize control over their destinies, a giant step will have been taken toward a sustainable future.”
This past October, activists were preparing to take on the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). That agency finds itself caught in a perpetual conflict of interest: on the one hand, protecting the environment; on the other, regulating the industries that exploit it. In fact, the 1981 legislation exempting gas corporations from New York’s home rule had been written by Greg Sovas, then head of DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources.
Guidelines for the hydraulic fracturing industry were first issued by the department in late 2009 and rejected in 2010 under withering public criticism. Then-Governor David Paterson declared a moratorium on fracking in the state pending DEC revisions. Revised guidelines appeared this past September in the form of 1,537 mind-numbing pages bearing the title, “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement,” aka the “SGEIS.”
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