By Dan Degear
(DeRuyter, NY – Aug. 2012) At the May, 2012 meeting of the DeRuyter Town Board, a concerned resident presented the board with a petition calling for the town board to enact a moratorium on natural gas drilling. The petition had more than 100 signatures, including signatures from residents of our neighboring towns. While the efforts and concerns expressed in the petition are appreciated, the board is of the opinion that there is no need to take such action at this time.
Natural gas is not new to the Town of DeRuyter; our town has long been home to a large, high-pressure transmission pipeline, natural gas has long-been an energy source for our village residents, and two natural gas wells were actually drilled in DeRuyter in 1980.
Our experience with natural gas does not, however, include the concerns that come with the method currently in use to extract natural gas from shale formations thousands of feet below the surface. This method, high-volume hydraulic fracturing, requires large amounts of water, sand and chemicals to be pumped into the gas well at an extremely high pressure to create crevices in the rock, releasing the gas.
The safety of hydraulic fracturing is the source of much debate with experts on both sides citing “facts” that are often no more than hearsay. The DeRuyter Town Board is making every effort possible to distinguish the truth from the rhetoric to determine the best course for the town.
A moratorium as requested by the petition is premature; it serves no valid purpose at this time. Currently, there is a statewide de facto moratorium in place as there will not be any high-volume hydraulic fracturing permitted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation until the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement is complete. Shale-gas cannot be extracted using this method in New York state at this time – it is not legal to do so.
State Environmental Conservation Law Article 23 clearly exempts the oil and gas industry from local ordinances. This is the law by which the town of DeRuyter must abide until one of two things happen: either the legislature changes the law, or case law is established to the contrary.
Simply put, the town board does not have the authority to regulate the natural gas industry at this point in time.
The towns of Dryden and Middlefield are engaged in a legal battle with the natural gas industry regarding the towns’ right to enact an outright ban of the industry. Two separate State Supreme Court justices (not the highest court in New York) found that the towns do, in fact, have the right to ban drilling for natural gas within their borders.
These cases, however, are not final as they are subject to the appeals process. It is our understanding that an appeal has not yet been filed; however, we are told that the establishment of meaningful case law does not occur until the appeal process is exhausted.
It is true that many municipalities disagree with our opinion and have enacted moratoria, regulations or outright bans of natural gas drilling. Many of these municipalities are located outside of the likely shale-gas fairway and have enacted these laws due to political pressure and not because of a sound, scientific reason to do so.
Anti-gas industry groups are well-organized and travel from town to town pushing for moratoria using fear-mongering techniques. The DeRuyter Town Board is keenly aware of the potential of natural gas development – both the good and the bad. These tactics will not work here.
A moratorium, by definition, is a temporary measure. This is a tool of the town board that has an expiration date. Any moratorium enacted by the town board must expire within one year of its enactment with the possibility for two six-month extensions.
Local geological experts have told us that if gas drilling were to affect DeRuyter, it is not likely to happen for nearly 10 years. It simply does not make sense to use this tool at this time.
The passage of a moratorium comes with other requirements, as well. The town must be actively pursuing some form of legislation or action specifically related to the subject of the moratorium during the term of the moratorium. It is unknown at this time exactly what will be required by the DEC under the SGEIS.
Even in the event that law is changed to provide the town with the ability to regulate the industry, we will not know what regulations may be necessary until the finalization of the SGEIS.
It has become impossible for non-biased conversation about the issue to occur. Both the anti-gas and the pro-gas sides have taken the position that if you are not 100-percent with them, you must be against them. Neither side seems to allow for any middle ground. This is an unfortunate development because I believe that most of us are, in fact, somewhere in the middle on the issue.
Currently, the town board continues to watch and educate ourselves on the many facets of natural gas activit and hydraulic fracturing issue. Our education includes numerous readings, educational meetings, seminars and board members have taken a trip to the impacted areas of Pennsylvania to see the issues first-hand. The board has not taken the issue lightly and is committed to seeking out the best course for the town of DeRuyter.
I sincerely thank those who felt strongly enough to sign or collect signatures requesting a moratorium. At this time; however, such action is not necessary. I encourage all concerned residents to contact me with any questions you may have regarding natural gas or any other concerns.
Dan Degear is DeRuyter Town Supervisor and vice chairman of the Madison County Board of Supervisors.