Behind the bans on fracking: a pair of Ithaca lawyers

Adrian Kinloch / via Flickr.com
June 5, 2012

About 100 towns in New York State have passed laws that ban gas drilling. Most of the bans are temporary, about 20 are permanent. In the first installment of a two part series, the Innovation Trail's Matt Richmond reports on the two Ithaca lawyers whose work laid the groundwork for those drilling bans.

Before moving to Ithaca in 1999, Helen and David Slottje were real estate lawyers at a firm in Boston. Now middle-aged, Helen says they came to Upstate New York to get away from the world of corporate law and to work with her brother-in-law's small company.

"You know, bucolic upstate New York, family company, you know, a switch from big city corporate practice to sort of small town nice, bucolic existence," says Helen.

But slowly she got pulled into a more hectic world, the world of local people opposed to hydraulic fracturing. It all started when the Slottjes went looking for a farmhouse for David's brother. Everywhere they went, the sellers had leased their mineral rights to an oil and gas company.

"And the real estate brokers 'oh, don't worry, everyone around here has got a gas lease. It's really nothing to worry about.' And David, having practiced law in Texas, was like, there's no such thing as an insignificant, don't worry about it gas lease," Helen says.

So they started worrying about it. Helen joined an e-mail list with people organizing against fracking in New York. Then she took up a fight against an industry project in Chemung County. And two years ago, she started working with the Tompkins County Council of Governments as it prepared for drilling in the area.

"One of the natural links was that David and I could work on what sort of local laws towns might pass. So we got started on that but with the real focus on lighting or noise laws or dust laws, air pollution laws but a very important part of that question was what does regulate mean," Helen says.

Under New York law, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is given the sole authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, with only a couple of exceptions. That means towns can't say how the industry operates within their borders; that power resides with the state.

The rationale behind the law is to make things easier for industry by avoiding a patchwork of local regulations across the state. So the Slottjes figured that towns could adopt a single law, in the form of a ban, and get around that problem.

"It was too complicated to have all these different layers of local regulation and they could do this here, they could do that there, well do they understand no? Like, is that too complicated for the gas companies?" Helen says.

When the Slottjes realized that was the course to take, they wrote a legal rationale and model zoning laws that have spread across the state.

Today, their Ithaca office is two desks squeezed into the bit of open space that isn't taken up by stacks and stacks of paper.

Ever since two county courts in the state upheld local bans, Helen says they've been getting calls every day from towns looking for help.

For each of the 80 or so towns they've worked with, they go through the zoning code and each town's master plans. They'll write a draft with the proposed zoning changes. When invited, the Slottjes speak at town board meetings.

"They schedule town boards on Saturdays and Sundays now, special meetings so they can get us, and I mean so we work seven days a week, might have taken a day or two here or there over the past year," says Helen.

The Slottjes work for towns for free but receive outside grant money to pay for their work. They have been criticized by landowner's groups for receiving money from the Ithaca-based Park Foundation, which bankrolls many anti-fracking groups.

David Slottje doesn't usually speak to the press, that's Helen's job. But during an interview at a coffee shop in Ithaca, he shared his plans for the future.

"I wish that wasn't the case, but if you look at the history of resource extraction in this country, whether you're talking about mountaintop coal removal or any of these things, these guys don't give up. There's money to be made and they're going to keep going until they're kicked in the butt out of town. And that's what we're trying to do is try to kick them in the butt out of town," says David.

It's not clear yet that their work will hold. Both cases involving the local bans are under appeal and the bans could still be thrown out. And everywhere in New York that the Slottjes go, the opposition to their work is getting louder. In part two, we'll hear from that opposition.

Read & listen to PART 2 of this story.

Read more at InnovationTrail.org.