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Fracking Fight Focuses on a New York Town's Ban

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our New York News page.

DRYDEN, N.Y. - This town in the Finger Lakes region is not the kind of place where one would expect a grass-roots uprising. Even its promotional brochure makes it sound sleepy, listing the main attractions as "a few large dairy farms, some crop farms and several horse ranches."

But Dryden could soon be synonymous with something more than animals and agriculture. In August 2011, the town passed a zoning ordinance effectively forbidding hydraulic fracturing, the controversial gas extraction method also known as fracking. The ordinance, passed after a feisty local lobbying effort, prompted a lawsuit now being mulled by New York State's highest court, the Court of Appeals, whose ruling could settle the long-simmering issue of whether the state's municipalities can ban the drilling process.

Dryden was not the first place to act against fracking, nor the first place where such bans have been subject to legal challenges. Bans are increasingly common in cities, towns and even counties across the country, including Pittsburgh, which did so in 2010, and Highland Park, N.J., a New York City suburb, where the Borough Council outlawed fracking on Sept. 17.

While some of those votes are more symbolic than substantive - Highland Park was not likely to become a gas-drilling center - in the case of Dryden, the stakes could be high.

"It's going to decide the future of the oil and gas industry in the state of New York," said Thomas West, a lawyer for Norse Energy Corporation USA, which has sought to have the ban overturned and will file legal briefs on the appeal on Monday.

That Dryden and other local governments in New York have decided to take matters in their own hands is not surprising. Fracking has been the subject of five years of evaluation by state officials, including a continuing, and some say strategically delayed, "health impact analysis" by the State Health Department - a process whose pace has been criticized by both supporters and opponents of fracking.

"This is not about a D.O.H. study," said Brad Gill, the executive director of Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which has lobbied to legalize the drilling technique. "This is about indecisive leadership in the state."

The study was ordered by the Department of Environmental Conservation, an agency controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has said the health review will help guide his decision on whether to allow fracking.     
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