Vestal a hot spot in hydrofracking debate

May 16, 2012

The Town of Vestal, near Binghamton, is well-placed for natural gas development. Just across the border, in Pennsylvania, the industry is in full swing. It’s in one of three counties in New York considered to be in the sweet spot of Marcellus Shale development. And its location is what has made Vestal a hot spot in the larger debate about hydrofracking.

Vestal residents opposed to fracking face an uphill battle. They're up against the Vestal Gas Coalition, a group of landowners who control 12,000 acres - more than a third of the town. The coalition recently organized an informational meeting where speakers talked about the community-wide benefits of gas drilling.

One speaker explained the mechanics of a local tax on wells. Another talked about the benefits of leasing school land for drilling. Besides tax revenue and extra money for schools, it was clear that landowners expected windfalls of their own.

A wealth management company was handing out fliers with tips on handling sudden wealth. Anyone with land could join the coalition for just $30 an acre - payable to a local lawyer, at a minimum of $300 per household.

Coalition chairman Bob Poloncic says his group started small, four years ago, and now represents about 600 families and all the land still available for leasing. "It was formed because we saw a need, as the industry was coming in and picking off people for ridiculously low prices and convincing them to sign up leases that was all about them and not about the landowner," he says.

Now, Poloncic figures any lease that the group signs will give landowners a $6,000 an acre up front payment and around a 20 percent royalty on produced gas. Collectively the coalition could make tens of millions of dollars.

But not everybody is thrilled by those numbers. In fact, they alarm Sue Rapp, who founded Vestal Residents for Safe Energy last year. She began her campaign by petitioning the town board to enact a law that would protect town roads from damage by industry trucks. "It was non-threatening because everyone wanted it," she says," There was no real down side and it was really saying to the town board, 'come on guys, do something.' "

That was almost a year ago, and still, no road use law. Now Rapp and other opponents of fracking in Vestal are calling on the board to enact a temporary ban on drilling.She says, "It is a bit of a long shot and I always back a long shot. I mean, what else is worth working for?"

There are 100 or so temporary or permanent local drilling bans in New York. But, besides a ban in the City of Binghamton, none are near the Pennsylvania border.
"So that's why our moratorium will be so significant and so important and so effective." Rapp says. So far, the town board has refused to put a moratorium up for a vote. So Rapp pushed for an informational meeting, put on by the town, to include both sides. The town has refused that too."So where's the transparency?" says Rapp, " Where's the responsibility to the members of the community?"

The town board is working on a road use law says boardmember Fran Majewski . But he doesn't expect them to take up a moratorium any time soon."I can't tell you how many hours we've spent on this whole issue, just listening to the people and reading their material and watching videos they send us on e-mail (he sighs), "hours and hours and hours and hours."

That probably won't stop Rapp and other fracking opponents from continuing to lobby the board. Meanwhile, Poloncic, of the landowners' group, says fracking opponents don't have the right to take control of this issue because they don't own the land."We don't want to make enemies of them but on the other hand, you know, we own the land and the areas where they are coming from, there's not going to be any developing going on."

As for the risks of fracking, Poloncic acknowledges that they do exist. Still, he says he's confident that, by the time the industry arrives in New York, the mistakes that led to problems in Pennsylvania will be corrected.