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New York's top court rules towns can ban fracking

Published time: July 01, 2014 15:36
AFP Photo / David Mcnew

AFP Photo / David Mcnew

Municipalities within New York can pass local laws to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the state’s top appeals court affirmed Monday.

The 5-2 decision this week out of the New York Court of Appeals now means that cities and towns across the Empire State can pass local zoning rules prohibiting the controversial natural gas-extraction process, much to the chagrin of energy companies that accused those restrictions of being illegal.

Dryden and Middlefield — two upstate New York towns — became the target of litigation after fracking operations planned within their borders were preemptively aborted as a result of recently-enacted drilling bans.

The plaintiffs — Norse Energy Corp. and a rural dairy farmer — responded to the bans in Dryden and Middlefield by asking the courts to acknowledge that towns can’t enact local laws imposing restrictions on the oil and gas industry.

Agreeing with three lower courts, the majority of the state’s appellate panel said local officials legally passed the anti-fracking bills.

"Plainly, the zoning laws in these cases are directed at regulating land use generally and do not attempt to govern the details, procedures or operations of the oil and gas industries," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court’s opinion.

"The towns appropriately acted within their home rule authority in adopting the challenged zoning laws," the court said. "The zoning laws of Dryden and Middlefield are therefore valid."

Monday’s ruling has already been hailed as a major decision by onlookers of the fracking debate, and the New York Times claimed the outcome will have “far-reaching implications for the future of natural gas drilling” within the state.

A de facto moratorium against fracking has been in place in New York since 2008 with state officials began ordering an in-depth study. Since then, though, more than 170 municipalities have passed bans of their own.

This week’s decision now makes New York the second state, behind neighbors Pennsylvania, to affirm that towns can ban fracking as they wish.

"Today the court stood with the people of Dryden and the people of New York to protect their right to self-determination. It is clear that people, not corporations, have the right to decide how their community develops," Dryden Deputy Supervisor Jason Leifersaid in a statement.

"Folks who are pro-drilling might be upset about this, but you should want local control,” Leifer said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"With this decision I think there will be more people willing to step forward and take action," Deborah Goldberg, attorney for the town of Dryden, told the Journal. "At some point there is going to be a critical mass and that should have an influence on representatives."

Thomas West, who represented Norse Energy, told Reuters that the decision will harm New York economically even further by forcing future would-be investors to pick other sites for fracking.

"Most industry have already fled the state, but the question is, will they come back," West said. "I think that the willing takers will be few and far between.”