Starkey Citizens for a Clean & Healthy Environment
Civil Fracking Rights: Community Response to Natural Gas Development in NY

I came to Otsego County, New York twenty five years ago, to a gentle valley nestled on the banks of the Susquehanna, and still call it home. For years I owned a 90-acre blueberry farm and wetlands which I sold just before the landmen came, offering gradually increasing sums of money for our natural gas mineral rights. Had they knocked on my door when I owned the land, I probably would have signed. Who knew?

My move took me to a little knoll, a 19th century hunting camp suitable for hobbits, just above the red roofed barn of Grandpa Norfolk’s farm. When the landmen came, he signed a lease: $3.00 an acre, a far cry from the $5,000 acre signing bonuses received in Pennsylvania five years later.[i],[ii] Who knew?

While living in the towns of Milford and Oneonta, I taught for 13 years at SUNY-Oneonta, publishing, “Too Wet To Plow: The Family Farm in Transition[iii] in 1987. That research documented the decline of dairy farming in surrounding counties. As the hydraulic fracturing wars heated up in New York, it was a logical step to ask how many of the farms interviewed in Too Wet had deeded their mineral rights to the myriad of out of state and out of nation natural gas drilling companies.

Beginning 11 years ago, NY landowners were offered gradually increasing signing bonuses for leasing their agricultural and woodland for future natural gas ventures. At the time, looking at neighboring Pennsylvania, the industry assumed that drilling permits would be issued without much interference from environmental regulators in the State. But NY declared a moratorium on drilling and opened a period of debate on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) 1200 page Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). The first comment period yielded 66,000 responses; a second round, ending on Jan. 12, 2013, resulted in 204,000.[iv]

In upstate NY, we are witnessing the way the penetration efforts of mature capital markets now involutes into the rural US “backwaters” in the wake of the recession and political changes abroad—squeezing new kinds of profit out of natural “resources” at the expense of local people in the manner of Third World operations. Having worked with the Zapatistas in Chiapas for the last 15 years, it is clear that now it is OUR internal places of rural poverty and marginalization under assault, places described by the EPA as having “no significant human activity,” literally squeezing the last bit of value out of the American hinterland.

In response, individual townships in NY have used home rule in an attempt to chart their own development course, by passing bans and moratoriums. In November 2011 the town of Dryden became the first of these to be sued in New York State Supreme Court, winning one stage of a lawsuit brought by a natural gas drilling company.[v] In another case, Middlefield also prevailed, though it was sued by a landowner claiming that the town interfered with her right to use her land. These cases test the ability of individual towns to invoke home rule; that is, to use local zoning ordinances to prohibit heavy industrial economic development.[vi] In the months leading up to this, local organizations came together to provide information, legal aid, and political power to divided communities facing hard choices both for and against fracking. As this complex development war continues, frack action mobilization comes to resemble the Zapatista social movement in Latin America. If the EZLN was the first virtual uprising, the frack battle is the first virtual civil rights movement, a struggle for autonomy in development decisions, fought out in the American hinterlands, by a US citizenry with no international rights. [vii]
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