Common Council to Consider Ban on Natural-Gas Drilling

2011-6-7

On June 7, the city of Oneonta Common Council will consider a law designed to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing within its limits. Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is an extractive technology which pumps millions of gallons of clean water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals underground to break apart the tight shale and release natural gas. It has come into focus in relation to the gas contained in the Marcellus shale, a unit of marine sedimentary rock extending throughout much of the Appalachian Basin. In recent years, the question of to hydrofrack or not to hydrofrack has been the subject of intense debate in Otsego County and all of New York state.

The draft law states, “It shall be unlawful for any person or corporation to engage in the extraction of natural gas within the City of Oneonta, with the exception of gas wells installed and operating at the time of enactment of this Ordinance.”

The law prefaces the prohibition on drilling with a statement of “findings and intent,” in which it asserts, “The Common Council believes that the protection of residents, neighborhoods, and the natural environment constitutes the highest and best use of the police powers that this municipality.”

It also includes a statement of the “rights of the city of Oneonta residents and the natural environment,” which include the right to water, the right of natural communities, and the right to self-government.

Colleen Blacklock led a petition effort to show public support for a ban on gas-drilling. Both residents and students at the State University at Oneonta and Hartwick College have collected more than 1500 signatures on a petition urging the municipality to pass a ban. The petition based its ban request on the city’s comprehensive plan, which defines a vision to “advance the quality of life for its residents, protect its traditional urban fabric and its surrounding natural beauty, promote a sustainable economic base, advance environmentally sensitive planning, and improve its standing as a regional destination for the arts, sports, tourism, shopping and collegiate activity.”

It concludes, “We, the undersigned, request the City Council of Oneonta take immediate steps to pass legislation prohibiting hydraulic fracturing for shale and stone gas and related activities within the city. We also request that the city prevent the sale of water for gas drilling operations and protect the city’s water supply including its reservoir, with the same guidelines being considered for protection of New York City’s water supply.” In May 2010, the New York State Department of Conservation virtually exempted the New York City watershed from hydrofracking activity by requiring individual site plan review of gas wells.

The petition campaign to ban hydrofracking in both the city and the town of Oneonta began in March of this year after Orville Cole, president Gastem, Inc., a Montreal-based oil and gas company, and independent consultant Uni Blake contracted with Gastem made a presentation to the Town of Oneonta town planning board.

Several categories of signatures were collected, including registered voters of the city of Oneonta, business patrons of the city, and students who attend the state university and Hartwick College, a private institution.

According to Blacklock, students became involved after a showing of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland. The film’s director Josh Fox made a personal appearance at the event.

“It was an amazing moment,” Blacklock said. “Josh spoke to the students directly and you could almost see the light bulbs going on in their heads. They seemed to take ownership of the issue because they understood that it will affect their future.”

After the Gasland showing, Blacklock said, students were highly motivated to participate in rallies and go door-to-door with petitions asking the Common Council for a ban on hydrofracking. They collected almost 600 student signatures on campus and around the city’s center.

Many residents also signed the petition. A local organic grocery, Green Earth, was a central location for signing petition. Asbury Gardens, an Oneonta nursery, was also a collection point for signatures.

Hartwick College professor Mark Davies and his wife Diana Portalatin led a group of petitioners in the city’s second, third, and fourth wards.

“While this petition shows that Oneonta’s residents have a concern for how hydrofracking will impact the city, it also reflects a greater concern for how hydrofracking will affect the surrounding communities,” Davies said.

Maddy Silber, city resident and petitioner in the second ward, said that most people she talked to were eager to sign and only a few declined.

“This gas drilling is like the bible story of Esau selling his birthright for a pot of porridge. In this case our clean water is our birthright and the pot of porridge is short-lived financial gain,” said long-time city resident Lucille Wiggin.

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