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Score One for the Little Guy: Judges Rule New York Towns Can Keep Gas Drillers Out Judges Rule New York Towns Can Keep Gas Drillers Out

These decisions could serve as a national precedent for small groups of people looking to keep big drilling companies at bay.

Back in August, the town of Dryden, New York banned fracking, and last week a New York state judge ruled that it was within its rights to do so. By the end of the week, another judge had ruled in favor of fracking ban passed by Middlefield, about 100 miles east.

Environmental groups say these decisions may serve as a national precedent, which could help small groups of people across the country keep the hazards of natural gas drilling out of their communities. The gas companies that wanted to drill in Dryden and Middlefield argued that the state, not individual towns, has power over oil and gas drilling—an assertion the judges struck down decisively. In his ruling in the Middlefield case, acting Justice Donald Cerio wrote that, while the state has control over the "how" of drilling, local governments still have the power to decide whether they wanted their towns to be the "where."

One of the difficulties of fracking in upstate New York is that people there aren’t used to suffering the consequences of energy extraction. In places like Texas and West Virginia, where mining companies have long ruled and laws don’t give individuals or towns much protection, fights against fracking haven't gained much traction. (A West Virginia court shot down a fracking ban in Morgantown earlier this year.) Local activists in upstate New York have been fighting against fracking for years now. In small, rural towns where mining or drilling companies come to town offering lucrative payoffs, neighbors often disagree with neighbors about the right course of action. But in Dryden, so many people—almost 2,000 out of a population of about 14,000—signed the petition asking the town to fight fracking that officials decided to rule out drilling.

The Anschutz Exploration Corporation had dropped more than $5 million on the right to drill in Dryden, a sum for which the company’s lawyers have said they might sue the town to recoup the loss. AEC is part of large web of companies connected to Philip Anschutz, a Colorado businessman who is worth an estimated 7 billion dollars and whose entertainment company that control large swaths of downtown Los Angeles. That Dryden managed to keep the company from drilling is a classic but all-too-rare story of the little guy having his day in court and winning.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Bosc d'Anjou

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