Tompkins County prepares rule book as fracking approaches

Jul 21, 2011

Tompkins County legislator Carol Chock is spending a lot of time thinking about hydrofracking these days.

Witness her dining room table.  

It's covered in charts and documents related to drilling.  When she and her husband want to eat, they eek out a place to set their plates by pushing the mass of papers down to one end.

It's just one of the ways that Tompkins County is carefully preparing for the arrival of hydrofracking - even as many of its residents staunchly oppose it.

Tompkins County is home to Ithaca ("ten square miles, surrounded by reality"), and has a reputation for being a hotbed of hydrofracking opposition.

In fact, the town of Ithaca was among the first in the state to ban hydrofracking - a move that will likely be challenged in court.

However, as the inevitability of drilling in the neighborhood creeps closer, Chock and her colleagues in county government are spending more and more time looking at how the industry might affect the local economy and infrastructure.  

So far they've tackled a hefty list, including how to pay to fix potential damage to local roads from drilling trucks, how an influx of out-of-state workers could affect rents, how first responders will deal with accidents on drilling sites - even looking at whether or not the property tax software that the county uses can capture the fact that land has a gas lease on it.

"I realize now I had no clue [a year ago] how much there was to do," says Chock.

Getting the house in order

Chock and her colleagues aren't alone in facing this massive task. She has a technical advisor in the county planning office when she needs one: Darby Kiley walks counties through the incredibly complicated landscape of rules and regulations.

"Environmental conservation law is tough on its own," she says. "The knowledge is definitely gaining, but there are definitely misconceptions about what it's all about, and what the towns can do.  So we're trying to set as many people straight as we can."

Kiley's work is funded by the Park Foundation (a pro-environment endowment), to help towns and legislators put strong rules about gas drilling on the books.

But it's not just Tompkins County, with its strong anti-fracking sentiment, that's getting its house in order when it comes to drilling rules and regulations.

Megan Thoreau Jacquet works at the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board. Currently she's advising three counties - Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben - on their gas drilling planning.

"There's always a fear behind it in this area ... they don't want a lot of regulations ... it's not even related to the energy industry, they just don't like it," she says.

But for those who do want drilling to come, Jacquet says she's not concerned that local regulation will scare off the industry - and the income that might come with it.

"Ultimately I don't really think that's an issue. I think there are other statements in the media from energy industries that just say, 'make up your mind. If you tell us what your regulations are, then we can comply with them'."

"Our way of life"

But crafting those regulations is tough even for a county like Tompkins, that's relatively well-off. The county has faced budget cuts during the recession, and its staff and finances are feeling the strain of putting in the hours to prepare for fracking.  It's been so rough that Chock says she's actually jealous of gas companies, with their large operations and plentiful manpower.

But Chock says there is a silver lining to the messy dining room table, the harried staff, and the minute details.

"[It's] the dialogue the community is having, from all perspectives, about what do we want for our community," she says. "What are the ways in which we'd like to put in place some mechanisms, whether for gas drilling or other activities? What are the decisions we want to make for our town, our village, our road, our way of life?"

Those decisions could soon be thrown for a loop, however.

New York's Department of Environmental Conservation recently said that it's planning to address some of the same community impact issues that Tompkins has been looking at, only on a statewide basis. That section of the drilling rules will be released in August.

That's when Tompkins County will figure out whether their preparations will hold - or if it's back to the drawing board.