High stakes in fight over Vestal, N.Y. fracking ban

May 17, 2012

The town of Vestal, N.Y., near Binghamton, is well-placed for natural gas development.

Just across the border in Pennsylvania the industry is in full swing. Vestal is situated in one of the three counties in New York considered to be in the sweet spot of Marcellus Shale development.

But not everyone is ready to welcome the industry.

In 2011, a group of local citizens opposed to drilling founded Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VeRSE). The group’s founder, Sue Rapp, started by researching local road-use laws. She lobbied the town board to enact a law that would require the drilling industry to pay for road repairs.

“It was non-threatening because everyone wanted it, there was no real down side,” says Rapp. “It was really saying to the town board, ‘Come on guys, do something.’ ”

The road-use law went nowhere.

So she moved on to collecting signatures for a moratorium on drilling, convinced that the town board wouldn’t do anything to prepare for the industry’s arrival.

The Gas Coalition

The opponents of fracking face an uphill battle.

VeRSE is up against the Vestal Gas Coalition, a group of landowners who control 12,000 acres - more than a third of the town.

The coalition recently organized an informational meeting where speakers talked about the community-wide benefits of gas drilling. One speaker explained the mechanics of a local tax on wells. Another talked about the benefits of leasing school land for drilling.

Besides tax revenue and extra money for schools, it was clear that landowners expected windfalls of their own.

A wealth management company was handing out fliers with tips on handling sudden wealth. Anyone with land could join the coalition for just $30 $15 an acre - payable to a local lawyer, at a minimum of $300 per household.

Coalition chairman Bob Poloncic says his group started small, four years ago, and now represents about 600 families - as well as all the land still available for leasing.

“[The group] was formed because we saw a need,” says Poloncic. “The industry was coming in and picking off people for ridiculously low prices and convincing them to sign leases that were all about them and not about the landowner.”

He says fracking opponents don’t have the right to take control of the issue because they don’t own the land.

“We don’t want to make enemies of them, but on the other hand, you know, we own the land,” says Poloncic. “The areas where they are coming from, there’s not going to be any developing going on.”

As for the risks of fracking, he acknowledges they do exist. Still, he says he’s confident that by the time the industry arrives in New York, the mistakes that led to problems in Pennsylvania will be corrected.

For now, Poloncic’s group is waiting for an offer from a drilling company that wants to come to Vestal.

Poloncic figures any lease the group signs will give landowners a $6,000 an acre upfront payment and around a 20 percent royalty on produced gas.

Collectively, the coalition hopes to make at least $72 million.

Underdogs

But not everybody is thrilled by those numbers. In fact, they alarm VeRSE’s Rapp.

“The risks that the gas companies, that the coalition members, are willing to take for themselves are one thing, but the risk they’re willing to put everyone else in, without their consent, is something entirely different,” says Rapp.

A year after she began pushing for a road-use law, the town still hasn’t passed one. So far, she has submitted more than 2,000 signatures in support of a temporary ban on drilling.

“It is a bit of a long shot - and I always back a long shot,” says Rapp. “I mean, what else is worth working for?”

Across the state there are about 100 temporary or permanent local drilling bans, according to environmental group Food & Water Watch. But, besides a ban in the city of Binghamton, none are near the Pennsylvania border.

The existing bans are mostly clustered at the northern edge of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.

Rapp acknowledges that getting a moratorium in Vestal would be a blow to the industry.

“So that’s why our moratorium will be so significant and so important and so effective,” says Rapp. “That’s why they’re fighting us so hard.”

Staying neutral

The Vestal town board has refused to put a moratorium up for a vote.

Recently, Rapp has begun focusing on an informational meeting, put on by the town, that would include both sides. The town has refused that too.

At an April town board meeting, the idea of holding one of these meetings was put up for an informal poll. According to the meeting minutes, the board seemed in favor.

During the public comment period that followed, landowners’ coalition chairman Bob Poloncic stood up and said his members wouldn’t attend a meeting with the other side.

Town board member Fran Majewski says his fellow members were troubled by a meeting held the next weekend at Binghamton University. The meeting turned into a heated debate, which included an outburst by a fracking opponent.

Majewski says that led the board to change their minds about holding a meeting, especially if Poloncic’s coalition refused to attend.

“The board doesn’t want to get in a situation where we’re going to be taking sides on an issue,” says Majewski. “It’s going to be highly emotional, highly volatile - at the drop of a hat somebody can just get upset at a decision we’re going to make.”

Majewski says the board is working on a road-use law, moving slowly to make sure they get it right. As for the fracking moratorium, he doesn’t expect to take up the issue any time soon.

“I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent on this whole issue, just listening to the people and reading their material and watching videos they send us on e-mail,” Majewski says. “Hours and hours and hours and hours.”

That probably won’t stop Rapp and other fracking opponents from continuing to lobby the board.

“If they really do nothing, they’re saying they’re for gas,” says Rapp. “So we are trying to make that point more public - to let them know that doing nothing is not a neutral stance, it is a very active stance.”