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Fracking ban challenged in Town of Middlefield

Another town ban on natural gas drilling is being challenged in court.  Just one day before the Town of Dryden was sued by driller Anschutz, the Town of Middlefield in Otsego County was the subject of a lawsuit.

Jennifer Huntington, a dairy farm, brought the suit against the town board on September 15. She claims that the town's ban on gas drilling violates New York state law.

The town's law - and the argument against - it are nearly identical to the Dryden case.

According to Huntington's lawyer, Scott Kurkoski, there is a chance this case will reach the court of appeals, the state's highest court, because these bans are becoming a common way for towns to shut out gas companies.

"I think right now about 18 towns in upstate New York have enacted these bans and at least that many other towns are considering these bans," says Kurkoski.

New York's oil and gas law gives the Department of Environmental Conservation full authority to regulate the industry. Road use and property tax laws are the only exceptions.

According to Middlefield town supervisor Dave Bliss, banning gas companies from working in a town is different than regulating them.

"The state would set the regulations and they would just be able to drill or not drill in certain areas of the state based on local ordinances," says Bliss.

Costly argument

The Dryden lawsuit was brought by Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which has applied for a drilling lease in Dryden and invested about $5 million dollars in operations there.

Lawmakers in Dryden face a company with far more resources at its disposal than in the Middlefield case.

According to a profile in Forbes magazine, the company's owner, Phil Anschutz, has a personal wealth of $7 billion and owns the entertainment company AEG, Southern Pacific Railroad, Qwest Communications and one-third of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It appears likely that the state will allow drilling to begin sometime next year. The environmental group Otsego 2000 has hired a law firm to counsel Middlefield onits options [PDF] for banning gas drilling. They are also considering assisting the town with legal fees once the case goes to court, says executive director Ellen Pope.

Henry Kramer, a labor lawyer and founder of the Dryden Safe Energy Coalition, says he advised his town board to hold off on their gas ban until a court rules on a challenge elsewhere.

"They are going to spend a huge amount of taxpayer money defending the same law as Middlefield's," said Kramer.

WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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