This commentary was written by Michael J. Fitzgerald, who has been a magazine and newspaper journalist for nearly 40 years. He lives around Seneca Lake and writes a weekly column which is published in the Finger Lakes Times on Fridays. Fitzgerald is the author of the 2014 novel “The Fracking War”, which is available through Amazon.com and other sources. The novel also has a Facebook page.
This article was published on December 26, and is republished with the permission of both the author and the Finger Lakes Times.
The New York decision to ban hydrofracking was a clear victory for the thousands of people that worked hard to convince state authorities this natural gas extraction technology is too dangerous to use.
But this one victory is just that — one single victory.
Keeping a hydrofracking ban in New York will be a long, protracted struggle. Opponents are battling an international juggernaut of well-heeled corporations that know mostly how to drill, extract and count profits.
But even as celebratory champagne corks popped, hydrofracking proponents were planning a multi-pronged counteroffensive.
Among other things, they advocate pro-fracking forces greatly increase efforts to stack New York town boards with pro-hydrofracking people. And if successful in getting a pro-hydrofracking majority, then they plan to move quickly to ensure zoning and regulations are adopted to enshrine fracking as legal.
If a town already has a hydrofracking ban, the idea is to muster votes to decisively overturn it.
Perhaps ironically, the ideas being floated by pro- hydrofracking forces are the same ones anti-hydrofracking activists are kicking around, just turned 180 degrees.
Although the just-adopted ban on fracking is likely to remain in place during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s four-year term, a hydrofracking-friendly politician might replace him in 2018. Pro-fracking groups are already eyeballing potential gubernatorial candidates.
But even if New York winds up with a pro-fracking governor in four years, it might not matter if every town, village and municipality has a ban on hydrofracking in place.
Pro-fracking forces also want to hammer the state with thousands of lawsuits, specifically filed on behalf of people with signed agreements with natural gas companies to allow their property to be used for hydrofracking.
One gas industry newsletter offered this nugget last week, indicating how furious the industry is: “Time to start filing ‘takings lawsuits.’ If New York won’t allow fracking, they reasonably should be required to pay landowners. Yes, it will bankrupt the state. So what?”
Even though “so what” was written in the heat of defeat, it’s breathtaking.
Equally breathtaking are recent actions by public officials in Schuyler County dealing with citizens protesting the proposal to store gas in salt caverns on the shore of Seneca Lake.
At the continuing anti-Crestwood blockade north of Watkins Glen, tempers of police dispatched to arrest protesters are fraying. Even photographers and reporters for professional media outlets are gruffly threatened with arrest if they refuse to leave as quickly as on-scene officers demand.
In the Town of Reading, Judge Raymond T. Berry’s patience and judgment have evaporated as he deals with the rising flood of 170 trespassing cases that began in October.
Last week — on the same day the state’s hydrofracking ban was announced — Berry closed his courtroom to the public and press to conduct a legally questionable, private 5 p.m. hearing for a single defendant. It drew justifiable howls of protest from the defendant, people there to attend the hearing and an attorney helping arrestees navigate muddy legal waters stirred up by Berry and John Tunney, a county assistant district attorney.
At a 7 p.m. hearing for other Crestwood trespassing defendants, Berry reluctantly allowed some people in the courtroom, though far less than the 49 people allowed by fire code. The rest of the public was barred by a town clerk from remaining in the large, unoccupied public meeting hall outside the court.
Instead they stood in the parking lot in the December cold. Temporary no-parking signs were also posted on the adjacent state highway, preventing people from parking within a half mile of the hall.
While allowing public participation and observing constitutional niceties (like public trials) might be unwelcome notions for some misguided public officials, the statewide ban on fracking demonstrates where the real strength lies in New York — with the public.
Expect the public to start flexing its muscles soon in Schuyler County. Very soon.
Read another article about the “legally questionable private” hearing held in Reading Town Court.