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New York Towns Threaten to Secede Over Fracking Ban

Upstate residents seek the “new cars, new four-wheelers,” and “new snowmobiles” enjoyed by their Pennsylvania neighbors.

Southern Tier of New York. Photo by Stilfehler via Wikimedia Commons

Fifteen upstate New York towns are considering secession from the Empire State after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent ban on fracking shut down hopes of a natural gas-related economic boom. Sitting atop the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that contains a large amount of trapped natural gas, these towns are threatening to move to Pennsylvania, which shares a border with New York’s Southern Tier, and where the fracking business is still thriving. On Friday, a local CBS News Affiliate in Binghamton, WBNG-TV, reported that The Upstate New York Towns Association, a lobby group for a number of upstate municipalities, was “comparing taxes and the cost of doing business in the two states.”

“The Southern Tier is desolate,” Jim Finch, a Republican town supervisor for Conklin, told WBNG-TV. “We have no jobs and no income. The richest resource we have is in the ground.” Finch added that residents of the Southern Tier are “being deprived of work,” and the fracking ban was “a violation of his natural rights as a property owner.” State Senator Tom Libous, a Republican from Binghamton, also included a question about New York towns seceding in a recent survey of his constituency.

In December, following pressure from environmental groups and the release of a long-awaited New York State public health report, Cuomo banned the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract gas or oil in New York State. At a meeting of the Governor’s cabinet, Acting State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker made it clear that he could “not support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York.” He said on top of the evidence gathered by the report, he asked himself, “‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else's family to live in such a community either.” Along with the potential health risks, due to falling oil prices and existing local township bans on the gas extraction process, “The economic benefits are clearly far lower than originally forecast,” Joseph Martens, the state environmental conservation commissioner told the New York Times in December.

Crossing into New York State from Pennsylvania. Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr

While fracking in the area might only bring temporary economic relief, along with a host of health-related and geological nightmares, it seems that many involved in the debate see the short-term benefits as good enough. And the oil industry checks enriching their neighbors in Pennsylvania are causing a good amount of envy for financially strapped Southern Tier residents. “Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically,” Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council told the New York Times. “It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity.” Speaking to Capital New York on Friday, Jim Finch complained, “Everybody over the border has new cars, new four-wheelers, new snowmobiles. They have new roofs, new siding.”

Like most modern talk of any kind of secession in the U.S.—perennial rumblings from former Confederate states to repeat their antebellum treason, for example—it’s likely that the new upstate campaign won’t amount to much. To accomplish a move from one state to another, the towns would have to secure the legislatures of both New York and Pennsylvania, along with the blessing of the Federal government. On the other hand, for a Northern state, New York does have a long, weird history with the practice of secession: most of Vermont was originally a part of New York’s territory, until it successfully withdrew and became its own state in the late 1700s. Long Island and parts of the state bordering on Canada have regularly petitioned to form municipalities separate from the rest of New York, and for 250 years, residents and representatives have, in one form or another, tried to make New York City an independent state. And hilariously, in 1861, a single municipality in the state, Town Line, New York, famously seceded from the Union and “joined” the Confederacy. Making it the official “last holdout of the Confederacy,” the town only officially rejoined the United States in the 1940s, in a ceremony presided over by the inestimable Cesar Romero.

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