Can two Ithaca lawyers keep fracking out of New York state? (part 2 of 2)

Matt Richmon / Innovation Trail
June 6, 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 part two of a series about the pair of Ithaca lawyers who laid the legal groundwork for these bans, the Innovation Trail's Matt Richmond reports on the widespread opposition they face.

Helen and David Slottje started working with the Town of Ulysses in early 2011. It was the first place they helped write a natural gas drilling ban.

The small Tompkins County town borders Ithaca. Town supervisor Roxanne Marino says the drilling ban was met with almost no opposition.

"And so we had citizens come to every meeting but we never had any citizens speaking against it. The citizens who came were really for us acting and acting fast on something because people had a lot of anxiety," says Marino.

Town officials in Ulysses shared their research with the nearby Town of Dryden which soon passed its own ban. Dryden's law led to a lawsuit from a natural gas company with leases there.

As the bans moved from Tompkins County to other counties across the state, the Slottjes followed. They spoke at town board meetings when invited. Soon, wherever the lawyers went, proponents of gas drilling were there too.

Tom Shepstone is the Marcellus campaign director for the industry-funded website Energy in Depth. He criticizes the Slottjes for saying they are working pro bono when their non-profit, Community Environmental Defense Council, receives grant money.

"Suppose that we marched into a community and said we¿re going to help you write a law that provides for natural gas drilling throughout your community without restriction and so on and so forth and we're going to advise you and we're going to do it on a pro bono basis. Everybody will look at us and say, what, are you kidding?" Shepstone says.

Shepstone says he is open about the fact that he works for land developers, in this case gas companies. And he says the Slottjes should be more open about the money they're receiving too. The couple received $50,000 a year in 2010 and 2011 from the Park Foundation.

The foundation's executive director, Jon Jensen, says the Slottjes were already doing the work before receiving any money from Park.

"We heard about them in the community, we heard they were out there doing good work to help communities assess the hydrofracking issues," Jensen says.

The Slottjes say they would keep doing the work whether or not they received the money.

That's not enough of an explanation for Shepstone. He says the Slottjes aren't just helping towns prepare for the gas industry, they're working for a group intent on keeping hydrofracking out of New York. Shepstone says officials should be listening to their town attorneys, not the Slottjes, when considering new laws.

"But in this case what they¿re doing, what we see in many communities, is they're coming and essentially substituting for the local attorney, the local attorney is relegated to the background," says Shepstone.

Landowners and people from Shepstone's organization go to many of the meetings where the Slottjes speak. They film the talks and write rebuttals. All this opposition hasn't caused the Slottjes to seek a lower profile. In fact, says Helen Slottje, it's kept her going.

"These days I think I would not have done my job if they haven't attacked us a couple each week, I must be doing something wrong. Yea, like it's perverse, but that's probably again why I'm a lawyer. I don't mind fighting and I really like to win," Helen says.

Slottje is convinced they are winning, that the courts will uphold the bans.

But not everyone is so sure. Scott Kurkoski is the lawyer for the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York and represents a Middlefield landowner suing over that town's drilling ban.

"I have some serious concerns about what David and Helen Slottje are doing. They in many cases are trying to convince towns that this is fine," says Kurkoski.

Kurkoski thinks the bans will eventually be overturned on appeal. And if not, he says there will be lawsuits against towns over whether they can stop residents from selling mineral rights without compensation.

"And so I'm not sure the towns understand what the Slottjes are getting them into," Kurkoski says.

Kurkoski says these small towns could stand to lose millions in legal fees and landowner compensation. It will be a while until this is all sorted out by the courts. And in the meantime, the Slottjes and their opponents keep traveling around the state, visiting towns, and offering clashing legal arguments on what to do about hydrofracking.

Read and hear more on this story at InnovationTrail.org.