In the brewing legal melee between gas drilling companies and local municipalities seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing on their lands, round one, it appears, is over: Local communities in a win by decision.
State Supreme Court Justice Philip Rumsey ruled Tuesday that the Town of Dryden’s recent ban on hydraulic fracturing — a controversial practice in which chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract natural gas — falls within the authority of local governments to regulate municipal land use.
According to court documents, Rumsey determined that the state’s mining law, which allows drilling companies to regulate their own activity, cannot stop towns from banning drilling through zoning ordinances.
On Sept. 16, Anschutz Exploration Corporation, a Denver-based gas drilling company, filed a lawsuit against the Town of Dryden. The suit challenged the town’s hydraulic fracturing ban, calling the prohibition “invalid, unlawful and unenforceable,” according to court documents.
According to the company’s statements during the trial, Anschutz has invested $5.1 million in drilling operations on more than 55,000 acres in the town. The company argued that Dryden’s ban on hydraulic fracturing — commonly referred to as “fracking” — violated a state law designed to create standardized regulations for oil and gas drilling and encourage the extraction of these resources.
The case was widely expected to set a precedent for New York State, several cities officials said.
“What this does is just to spread the message that municipalities should have the right to regulate these industries which are disruptive and have environmental impacts,” said Ithaca Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward). “It’s definitely a decision that has state-wide implications.”
Murtagh added that a final decision on whether New York municipalties can prohibit fracking will likely hinge on the Dryden lawsuit and another suit filed by a landowner against the Town of Middlefield.
“This was kind of a gray area of the law … [but] these are really precedent-setting cases,” Murtagh said.
As New York State moves toward permitting high-volume hydrofracking, Dryden and 51 other municipalities across the state have either changed their zoning regulations or passed laws to ban the process, The Sun reported in November.
Whether the state will allow fracking is ultimately Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) decision. Cuomo has said that he will only approve the method if it can be done safely.
In a statement Tuesday evening, New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125th) expressed support for the decision, which ruled in favor of local communities’ ability to control land use through zoning in the municipality.
“This is a victory for municipalities and land-owners across New York," Lifton said.