New York ruling on fracking bans might send tremors across U.S.

New York state's highest court ruled Monday that cities and towns have the power to ban fracking, a decision that comes as local governments across the nation are increasingly trying to use zoning laws to stop the contentious spread of drilling.

"I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere," said Mary Ann Sumner, the town supervisor of Dryden, N.Y.

The towns of Dryden, in Tompkins County, and Middlefield, in Otsego County, changed their zoning laws to ban fracking in recent years after energy companies started acquiring local leases to drill. The companies, Norse Energy and Cooperstown Holstein, filed lawsuits and argued that only the state had the authority to decide whether to prohibit oil and gas activities, not individual cities and towns.

The New York State Supreme Court disagreed Monday. It decided in a 5-2 judgment to uphold the opinion of a lower state court that found cities and towns do have the power to ban fracking.

"The towns both studied the issue and acted within their home rule powers in determining that gas drilling would permanently alter and adversely affect the deliberately cultivated, small-town character of their communities," the New York State Supreme Court found.

Parts of New York state sit on the Marcellus Shale, which is rich in natural gas. The state has a moratorium on fracking, which oil and gas companies are hoping Gov. Andrew Cuomo will eventually lift. Even if he does, more than 75 municipalities in New York state have banned fracking and others have implemented at least temporary prohibitions on its use.

Municipal bans are a growing phenomenon nationwide as localities target hydraulic fracturing, in which water and chemicals are pumped underground to break shale rock and release the oil and natural gas inside. Such cities and towns are often in conflict with state governments that want the revenue and the employment associated with the drilling technique that's spurred an American oil and natural gas boom.


The battle is especially fierce in Colorado, where the governor and oil and gas companies have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn bans passed by local voters.

Pennsylvania tried to prevent its local governments from prohibiting fracking, but it lost in court. The Ohio Supreme Court is considering whether cities and towns have the right to ban the practice.

Attorneys from the environmental law firm Earthjustice helped the town of Dryden with the New York case, and they said Monday's ruling "has sent a firm message to the oil and gas industry."

New York State Petroleum Council Executive Director Karen Moreau said the ruling would pose a problem for natural gas development in her state.

"Municipal boards change hands every two years, and a constantly shifting landscape of regulatory uncertainty virtually guarantees that major long-term investments in the state's economy cannot occur," she said.

The New York State Supreme Court tried to stay out of the fight over the impact of fracking in its decision Monday, saying the issue is about the limits of local power.

"These appeals are not about whether hydrofracking is beneficial or detrimental to the economy, environment or energy needs of New York, and we pass no judgment on its merits," the court said in its ruling.

By Sean Cockerham

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Sean Cockerham

Sean Cockerham is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He also covered Alaska issues for McClatchy Newspapers based in Washington, D.C.