Voters in Youngstown, Ohio, yesterday rejected a proposal to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city. Resident of Dryden, New York, just had their ban of the practice upheld. One of the biggest environmental fights in America is increasingly happening at the country's lowest political level, where councils and voters are deciding which is more important: jobs or the environment.
Hydraulic fracturing, which you likely know better as "fracking," is a process of natural gas and oil extraction which involves forcing water solutions into shale rock deposits at high pressure. The pressure shatters the rock, allowing the gas and oil to seep back to the surface, where it is collected. Fracking has resulted in a massive increase in natural gas production — but also earthquakes and some apparent episodes of water pollution.
Those two poles — job creation and economic growth versus pollution and environmental risk — have driven frequently partisan reaction to attempts to increase production. The state of New York, which in 2008 passed a moratorium on any new fracking wells, has been considering whether or not to lift that ban ever since. Likewise, the federal government, under the aegis of the Department of the Interior and the EPA, have been considering increased restrictions or disclosures on the fluids that are injected into the wells. One Republican Congressman today argued against those plans, saying that, "the regulatory needs of North Dakota versus Ohio and New Mexico are vastly different."
As it turns out, the regulatory needs and desires of municipalities are vastly different, too. When the governor of New York was considering lifting the state's ban on the practice last June, outlining rules that would have allowed it in some regions of the state, The New York Times put together a map of counties and towns that had separately approved or rejected fracking. Dryden was one of them. Towns and cities are given wide latitude to manage zoning and property matters within their boundaries. As Mother Jones reports, that provided an opportunity.
Under New York's Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law, towns can't regulate oil and gas; that can only be done at the state level. Many towns first assumed there was nothing they could do to stop fracking entirely. But a pair of environmental lawyers from nearby Ithaca, Helen and David Slottje, figured out that towns might be able to use zoning rules to bar that type of industry from coming in instead of trying to regulate it, since zoning is left to towns to determine.
It prompted a lawsuit, which was resolved last week. Reuters has the details.
Norse Energy in Dryden and landowner Cooperstown Holstein Corp in Middlefield, sought approval by the court to declare that the zoning laws were preempted by the state Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law.
The court ruled that the law does not trump municipalities when it comes to deciding zoning rules related to oil and gas drilling activities.
Dryden sits in the Finger Lakes region of New York, just east of Cayuga Lake. It's a region that's dependent on tourists who come for the beautiful foliage in the fall and pristine water in the summer. Which is why opinions on fracking in the region have been split — the threat of pollution in the lakes hard to offset with the promise of jobs.
Less so Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown, a city hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry, has hard a hard time regaining its footing. Because so many people have moved out of the city, the city council last year approved fracking in city limits in order to generate revenue that could be used to raze buildings. In response, a group of citizens petitioned to get an anti-fracking measure on the ballot (which was then replaced with one by the city council).
Yesterday, it failed. The Youngstown Vindicator reports:
“With tonight’s vote, the people of Youngstown have announced that the city is open for business,” Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber President Tom Humphries said in a statement after the votes were tallied. Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said the results demonstrated “the voters had no sympathy for those who want to hold us back.”
Lynn Anderson [of Frack Free Youngstown] … agreed that the amendment supporters weren’t going away.
“We stood up to protect people’s drinking water and their health,” she said.
The distinction between the two is somewhat artificial — changes in fracking procedures, for example, could reduce risks. But it's the choice that municipalities are being asked to make, and which, depending on the city and its residents and its needs, they're making.
Photo: Workers adjust a pipe at a fracking site. (AP)