New York State’s High Court Upholds Towns’ Right to Ban Fracking

by Amanda Frank, 7/1/2014

The New York State Court of Appeals issued a decision on June 30 that will shape the future of natural gas fracking in the state. In a vote of 5-2, the court ruled that local townships have the right to ban hydraulic fracturing within their borders. The decision upheld earlier rulings by the state’s lower courts that recognized the rights of the towns of Dryden and Middlefield to issue moratoriums on fracking.

History

Neither Dryden nor Middlefield had oil and gas extraction operations prior to the expansion of fracking, a drilling technique that injects water and chemicals into bedrock to release trapped oil and gas deposits. With this technique, natural gas contained in shale rock formations like the Marcellus region (which lies beneath parts of New York, among other states) became lucrative sites for gas drilling.

When gas companies began acquiring leases in the state, Dryden and Middlefield each held public meetings to discuss the practice and, based on local citizens’ concerns that fracking would threaten public health and destroy the character of the towns, issued moratoriums on fracking. Both towns concluded that fracking falls outside of permissible land uses based on local zoning ordinances and subsequently amended their zoning laws to ban fracking.   

The gas companies that had acquired leases filed separate suits against Dryden and Middlefield, arguing that the towns’ zoning ordinances are preempted by New York’s Oil, Gas, and Solution Mining Law, and therefore, towns are not permitted to issue moratoriums. New York’s lower courts ruled in favor of Dryden and Middlefield, and the gas companies appealed those decisions to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the New York judicial system.

The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the lower courts, stating that the towns were acting within their powers and declaring that state law “does not preempt the home rule authority vested in municipalities to regulate land use.” This is a landmark decision that should allow other towns and cities in the state to decide whether to ban fracking within their borders.

A Victory for Local Communities

The decision will not have an immediate effect on fracking in the state, as New York issued a state-wide moratorium on the practice as it awaits the release of a public health review by the New York State Department of Health. Even so, opponents of fracking celebrate this decision as a triumph of local communities over oil and gas companies. The ruling upholds local communities’ rights to govern land use and protect citizens from the public health risks associated with fracking.

Dryden and Middlefield are just two of more than 170 towns in New York that have issued fracking moratoriums to date. While New York has seen more local measures on fracking than any other state, communities from Pennsylvania to Hawaii have also passed resolutions to ban the practice. Their action speaks to the desire of local communities to make their own decisions regarding the fate of fracking in their towns. To see whether measures have been proposed or passed in your area, visit an interactive map produced by Food & Water Watch.  

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