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Dan Hust | Democrat

From the left, Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development President Tim McCausland, Douglas Lee of Livingston Manor and Gerald Skoda of Woodbourne all spoke out at last Thursday’s legislature meeting.

Gas drilling supporters turn out in force

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — August 24, 2010 — Local pro-drillers came out swinging at Thursday’s monthly meeting of the full Sullivan County Legislature.
Goaded into action by accusations on the anti-drilling side that the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development and Cornell Cooperative Extension were inappropriately promoting gas drilling, 18 pro-drilling speakers dominated the Legislature’s nearly three-hour gathering.
“We have a lot of good people on that board,” said Partnership Board Chairman Josh Sommers. “... The sad thing is, we believe we wouldn’t even be having this ‘ethics’ discussion if we were against gas drilling.”
Sommers affirmed the Partnership adheres to “detailed disclosure requirements” in its contract with the county, which partially funds it, and he insisted the Partnership is interested only in safe gas drilling.
“It’s coming whether we want it or not,” he remarked. “... And economic development needs to be represented in the discussion.”
Partnership President Tim McCausland mostly read a letter of support from the Partnership’s counterpart in Orange County, but he added that his non-profit organization submits a treasurer’s report, statement of economic indicators and meeting minutes every month to the county manager’s office.
“The Partnership’s main goal,” said longtime member Lew Klugman of Parksville, “is to bring environmentally safe businesses into Sullivan County.”
Larry Wolinsky of the law firm Jacobowitz and Gubits turned the focus on Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (CCSE) in what would become a recurring theme of the public comment, responding to CCSE members’ recent letters and statements in the Democrat.
“As most of you know, we are not a gas leasing firm,” he corrected. “... We’ve developed an expertise in gas leasing. ... We do not participate in the drumbeat to get permitting under way.”
He said all the costs of a recent forum at the Extension office – one CCSE criticized as simply benefitting those who stand to benefit from drilling – were paid for by his firm, which participated in the forum, rather than Extension monies.
“We make no apologies for promoting our expertise,” Wolinsky added.
As a member of the Partnership, Wolinsky explained that the Partnership’s bylaws require financial disclosure and voting recusal only when related to specific projects, not an industry as a whole.
Regardless, he said the controversy “is diverting us from our mission” of economic development.
Farmers agreed, including dairyman Harold Russell of Bethel and poultry farmer Robert Kaplan of Glen Wild, who expressed their support for the Partnership and drilling.
“I’ve made my living off the land,” said Russell, saying he’s not in business to pollute that land.
Profit, added Kaplan, “is the only thing that’s going to save our farms.”
They found a comrade in Dawn Erlwein, a Jeffersonville dairy farmer who resents the implication that her support of drilling equals a lack of caring for the environment.
“We’re all just trying to do the best we can out of the life we’ve been given,” she told legislators.
Fremont Supervisor Jim Greier, a horse farmer himself, recalled when locals used gas for lighting and heating, before electricity came to town. Then he turned to the future.
“We’re about 20-25 years away from being self-sustainable in our energy problem,” he remarked. “We need something to bridge this gap.”
With 76,000 gas wells already in New York, Greier said the “bridge fuel” appears obvious.
“God gave us this resource in the ground,” he stated. “... Let progress move forward.”
“I believe gas drilling would be a good boost to Sullivan County,” agreed Cochecton Mills owner Dennis Nearing, who supplies feed to a dwindling array of farmers. “... All the bad stories you hear about drilling? They’re not true.”
He accused retirees and “Johnnie-come-latelys” of selfishly and jealously opposing drilling.
“It’s a shame that a small minority can govern what happens in this area,” said Nearing.
Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association co-founder Noel van Swol noted his group has 70,000 acres of land available for leasing – but only for drillers with “the best environmental practices.”
He accused CCSE of trying to intimidate the Partnership and of having a hidden agenda to stop drilling entirely, rather than simply assuring it’s done safely.
“This is left wing environmental McCarthyism at its worst,” he told legislators. “Enough is enough.
“... We need to move forward and develop these fabulous gas resources in Sullivan County.”
He called concerns about drilling’s safety “largely overblown and exaggerated,” arguing that the chemicals used in fracking “are completely entombed and encapsulated [in the wellbore] and cannot affect the water supply.”
He then turned his focus on Legislator David Sager, who is running against NYS Senator John Bonacic on a platform that includes stricter regulations and studies on drilling.
“You are being perceived as anti-farmer, anti-business and anti-taxpayer as a result,” van Swol said.
Well-known sportsman Jack Danchak added his opinion that drilling can be done safely and responsibly and can save the county from further financial crisis.
“We’re not here with a hostile attitude,” he said but told legislators that the county’s current ban on drilling on county-owned property “is not a friendly statement.”
“The extra monies [from leasing] would be beneficial to our county budget,” he remarked.
Douglas Lee of Livingston Manor said the Marcellus Shale features the “motherlode” of gas, yet environmentalists and New York City residents are against it because they “want to turn this into their playground.”
“No, this is our land,” he countered. “We want to make a living!”
He discounted “Gasland” and other reports of environmental problems, saying they had been blown out of proportion when compared to accidents in other types of industry.
“We only have a handful of incidents,” Lee said, “and many of them are just suspected cases.”
He had travelled to Dimock and found a better-looking area than his own hometown.
“Gas development is highly, highly compatible with our area,” he urged. “... Let’s not force our farmers, our young people, out of the county so then the rich people can use this county as their playground.”
“Every person in our coalition is an environmentalist,” said Al Larsen, head of the Rural Bethel Landowners Coalition, another group interested in leasing land for drilling.
“... But we’re also realists,” he said, arguing that Sullivan County has little room to be picky when it’s the second poorest county in the state.
Though acknowledging he’s skeptical of industry claims, Larsen said he’s also skeptical of environmentalists’ claims.
“Don’t be frightened by those who tell you our water is going to be polluted,” he said.
He wondered if the opposition is actually being funded by oil interests, or those looking to grab cheap properties that end up in foreclosure.
That thought was echoed by Gerry Skoda, the former Extension director who came under fire from the CCSE for leading the same forum Wolinsky referenced.
“It starts with a whole group of people who have more money than you and I do,” Skoda told legislators.
Linking CCSE with Catskill Mountainkeeper, which has ties to the Open Space Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Skoda accused local environmentalists of participating in a spin game, a NIMBY effort to ensure wealthy second homeowners from NYC will not have to contend with more traffic and development.
“And you know what? [Their] gang is succeeding,” he charged. “They have people believing their crap!”
He labeled as “bull” the notion that fracking pollutes water and stated that farmers have not only benefitted from drilling but have stayed on their land rather than moving to a retirement paradise.
Drilling, Skoda predicted, “will be the biggest farmland preservation program in Sullivan County.”
He sarcastically suggested that what he views as a group of “elite environmental manipulators” should promote the banning of automobiles instead, as cars and trucks kill more people every year than the gas industry.
Skoda’s comments proved to be the harshest of the afternoon, though Honesdale, PA, planner Tom Shepstone also linked CCSE to the Open Space Institute, which he said recently received a $25 million loan from the state’s Empire State Development Corporation – questioning how much of that public funding went to projects other than economic development.
(CCSE, though not represented at the meeting, has already stated that it receives no public funds and relies on member donations.)
By meeting’s end, no anti-drilling sentiments had been expressed, save from Callicoon resident Liz Bucar. She identified herself as a moratorium supporter but actually got up to speak about the poverty in the county, asking legislators not to lay off personnel in next year’s budget.
Thus the focus stayed squarely on the pro-drilling side, which urged legislators to listen.
“You’ve been hearing from people calling themselves Catskill Mountainkeepers,” Bethel resident Cornelius Alexy said. “Today, you’re hearing from the Catskill Mountain owners.”

Legislators react to drilling comments

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — Legislators listened to about two hours’ worth of public comment at Thursday’s regular meeting.
At the end of the comment period, legislators Elwin Wood, Jodi Goodman, Alan Sorensen and Jonathan Rouis expressed the belief that gas drilling can be accomplished in Sullivan County safely.
“I believe we need to move Sullivan County forward,” said Wood, the Legislature’s vice chairman.
“It can be done correctly,” emphasized Goodman, lamenting that “there are some people in society who will always have a ‘no’ approach.”
Sorensen clarified that his calls for a new ethics process at the county level are “not directed at the Partnership” but are “much broader than that.”
As for drilling, “if appropriate safeguards can be put in place, I think it is something that can be done safely,” he said.
“We can do this probably safely,” agreed Rouis, the Legislature’s chairman, “in a way people can reap the benefits.”
Legislator David Sager, however, wasn’t so sure, citing the concerns over flawed studies aired by around 2,000 NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation employees.
“I have to pause, and I have to worry,” he told listeners. “... There are a lot of steps that have to be taken to ensure safe drilling.”
Responding to criticisms from the speakers that day, Sager added that he’s no “elitist” but simply a property owner and businessman in Jeffersonville who fears for the county’s future, especially with agriculture.
“The fact is, natural gas drilling and agriculture are two separate industries,” he remarked.
Calling himself “completely dedicated to farmers,” Sager apologized that the state and federal governments have not done more to help them but argued that drilling isn’t necessarily the way to go.
And he reminded the crowd that the county has a history of backroom deals, which is why he’s for more transparency from the county and its agencies.
Rouis concluded the intense discussion by urging all sides not to alienate each other.
“Working together works,” he said.

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