Dan Hust | Democrat
TOWN OF FREMONT Supervisor Jim Greier believes drilling will be a boon to hard-pressed farmers.
Drilling gets in-depth look from Legislature
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO An in-depth discussion of natural gas drilling finally reached the Legislature Thursday.
Members of the Planning, Environmental Management and Real Property Committee were joined by a crowd of two dozen onlookers, many of whom represented the various groups involved in this locally burgeoning industry.
Yet despite the controversy that has surrounded the situation in recent weeks, Thursday’s meeting was less debate and more discussion albeit passionate, opinionated discussion.
Committee Chair Jodi Goodman kicked it off, praising the turnout at a recent county-sponsored forum on gas drilling but lamenting how much is still unknown.
“This is a very complex issue,” she remarked. “The more I do research on it, the more confusing it is to me.”
Referencing the negative experiences of an upstate town supervisor, Goodman worried that the lack of local control (counties, townships and villages can only regulate road and tax issues) would create otherwise-avoidable problems.
“I’d like to ask the county attorney to look into the [state] Environmental Conservation Law,” she requested. “... Are we protected under it, or is it kind of mushy?”
Legislator Leni Binder worried, too, about the impact on assessments and the resulting paperwork.
“It’s going to mean a lot of manpower, and who’s going to pay for that?” she wondered.
The ironic potential of a huge incoming industry actually increasing the tax burden wasn’t lost on Goodman either.
“We don’t have a trauma center in Sullivan County, and our fire companies aren’t ready for that kind of burns,” she said, referring to the emergency healthcare that may be required should a drill or well malfunction.
Environmental concerns over air and water quality were aired, as well, but the worrying extended far beyond even that when Goodman wondered what would happen when this looming gas boom ends.
Referencing a city in Colorado that doubled in size during such a boom, she said the end of well production left the city grappling with too many buildings and not enough people.
“I really feel we’re being sold down the river here at the cheapest price,” added Legislator David Sager, who represents several of the townships already seeing the beginnings of drilling activity. “…Local municipalities have very little teeth in this thing.”
Sager would like to see private leases regulated by the state and steel tanks required rather than the usual open pits of wastewater left over from the hydraulic fracturing process.
“I’m a small landowner,” he acknowledged. “…We’re nervous because we want clean air for our children and ourselves. There has to be ways the state strongly mitigates and protects us… because we are all going to be inconvenienced by this.”
In the meantime, he asked leaseholders and those negotiating leases to keep their neighbors’ quality of life in mind though he has his doubts that will happen due simply to the tremendous profit potential staring struggling property owners in the face.
“It sometimes skews objectivity,” he remarked, adding that some landowners “are not sophisticated enough to handle this.”
Binder shared that concern, worrying that the fading resort days will return, when owners “took the money and ran.”
“Maybe this is a vehicle for them to leave the area,” she mulled.
“I think we have to have some authority in it,” Binder concluded. “…This is an area too big and involves too many people to stay at the personal level.”
A New Experience
Present at the committee’s request, Bradd Vickers, president of the upstate Chenango County Farm Bureau, related his region’s experiences, where landmen (mineral rights negotiators) are swarming the countryside.
“The reality is, what we’re doing here is very new,” he said. “You need to continue to educate the public.”
Vickers called gas drilling leases “a very complex issue disguised as a lottery ticket.” He favors the state Depts. of Environmental Conservation and Health getting even more involved in regulating the industry.
“Our Farm Bureau is not opposed to drilling,” he explained, “but feels it should be fair and equitable to the landowners and environmentally sound.”
Goodman acknowledged that “for many farmers out there, this is an opportunity to live and survive.
“We have to be sensitive to that,” she said. “…We just have to move with caution.”
Town of Highland Supervisor Tina Palecek said her board is trying to do just that, having recently enacted a six-month moratorium on drilling.
“We’re just trying to get some time… to figure out what we’ll need,” she said, explaining that just one gallon of water weighs eight pounds and millions of gallons will be needed to drill wells. “What will be the impact of that on town roads?”
She joined with Sager in being outraged by what she feels is the state’s laissez-faire approach to drilling, especially as pertains to wastewater pits.
One of her counterparts, however, sees more benefits than disadvantages.
“Farmers have been the best stewards of the land,” remarked Fremont Supervisor Jim Greier. “…Here’s an opportunity where they can still save their farms.”
He noted that a friend of his in Chenango County had a gas well drilled without using chemicals and that slightly radioactive material that was pumped up was pumped back down with no ill effects on property or people.
(Vickers worried that process might be illegal, however, pointing out that all recovered wastewater must be trucked to approved disposal sites.)
Keep Government out
Long Eddy resident Noel van Swol felt sure properly negotiated leases could address environmental issues, worrying instead about unscrupulous landmen who are trying to scare property owners into signing leases with insufficient protections.
“Landmen really are the biggest risk,” he said.
Van Swol and Bill Graby co-founded the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association earlier this year to deal with that threat, not only working on better leases but more profitable ones. What were once offers of $25 an acre last October are now up to $2,500 an acre, he said, adding that the true market value could be as high as $7,500 an acre.
The association already represents 57,000 acres of land and is negotiating the highest bid from a slew of interested gas companies.
He urged legislators and town officials to not unduly restrict people’s ability to develop their mineral rights.
“You’ve got to understand,” van Swol said, “this is enormously popular. If you had a vote [on gas drilling] in any town in Sullivan County, the environmentalists would lose.”
He also didn’t care for the notion of having the state regulate private leases.
“This is an example of where citizens who are alert and organized can do what needs to be done,” he continued, assuring that every landowner wants the environment to be protected. “No one wants to see it be raped.”
In fact, van Swol envisions a very good future for Sullivan County if for no other reason than the energy crisis in the rest of the nation.
“The intermediate step [to solving energy problems] is natural gas,” he explained, “and we have the natural gas.”
Plus there’s the potential for continuing profits, not just from producing wells and the associated royalties, but from increased business and industry.
“Think of the factories that can come into this region and provide jobs because they know they can get cheap gas,” he related.
And related risks are minor, he said: “I’ll take those risks anytime.”
Sager angrily responded, “We are here to protect the public welfare and interest, not necessarily large landowners’.”
He expressed doubt that the state will be able to handle the environmental concerns when the gas industry fully moves in, a sentiment seconded by Goodman.
Finding the Balance
Bethel resident Denise Frangipane framed it in a different light, arguing that no one need take sides.
“This is not about being for or against gas drilling,” she said, arguing that more research will ensure everyone gets what they want, from unharmed land and water to beneficial profits and growth.
“There’s no reason to rush into this,” she said, adding that slowing down “is not going to take opportunities away from individual landowners.”
Indeed, said Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, property owners can afford to take their time.
“You are all going to be rich, [so] think of your neighbors,” he urged.
“We only have one chance to do it right,” added Goodman.
To that end, legislators asked Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer and County Manager David Fanslau to create a brochure with information valuable to property owners and concerned residents.
Mileses farmer George Manno hoped that in the process they don’t forget how much local farmers have struggled.
“The farmers are hard-pressed,” Manno related. “We see this as an opportunity to keep our farms going.
“We don’t need the state telling us what to do with our properties. We’ll take care of it,” he remarked. “It’s the farmers and landowners who have kept it the way it is, and nobody else.”
County officials promised they would seek to balance the desire to regulate the gas industry with the desire to allow it to benefit locals.
“It’s not mutually exclusive to protect the environment at the same time,” proffered County Treasurer Ira Cohen, considering it the county’s mandate to do so “not to stymie the industry… but to work hand in hand with economic development.”