Another Numbers Game from Elected Officials Opposed to Natural Gas
Nicole Jacobs, Deputy Campaign Director
Rachael Colley, Field Director
Numbers are open to interpretation. They can seem great or small because they are relative. That was the strategy used in seeking to gain signatures of elected officials to discourage natural gas development in New York. In our review two things become clear, this list of elected officials is small and the letter is signed by officials who govern areas well outside where the Marcellus Shale will be developed.
Approximately 550 elected officials recently signed a petition asking Governor Cuomo to extend the comment period on natural gas regulations. The petition was circulated by the group “Elected Officials to Protect New York” and it asked Governor Cuomo to extend the comment period anywhere from 30 to 90 days. If the comment period was extended to 90 days, the Department of Environmental Conservation would have to start the whole process over again because the comment period will be pushed past the current deadline at the end of February. That, of course, is the end goal of these officials.
While 550 signatories sounds like a large number, it’s actually a small fraction of the total elected officials in the state. Remember, there are 62 counties (plus 5 in New York City totaling 67), 932 towns and 62 cities in the state. Each has varying numbers of elected officials depending on the structure of their government. Some of the names and counties on the list were to be expected, while others were shocking.
Not their first rodeo
It should be mentioned this same group sent another letter to Governor Cuomo in June calling for a comprehensive health study before the state moved forward with development. This was before it was leaked that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was sitting on a review conducted by the Department of Health (DOH) in February 2012.
Given this group of elected officials needs additional time to review the SGEIS, and the regulations proposed to govern natural gas development, it stands to reason this must be one of their first opportunities to review these two documents. After all, not many changes have been made in recent iterations of both documents.
Of course, that’s not the case as this group has already engaged on the issue on many occasions. One case in point, the officials had this to say about the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS):
Its study of socioeconomic impacts reported positive impacts but failed to properly analyze the negative impacts, and the revised SGEIS still failed to adequately consider cumulative regional environmental impacts, despite many comments highlighting this gap in the first draft.
It appears the above is based on a thorough review. Otherwise, it would be difficult to make such a declaratory statement with any credibility. So, by this group’s own logic they read enough to make the above assessment, but didn’t have enough time to comment on something they’ve already extensively commented upon? Apparently, the DEC saw through this delay tactic as well, as they did not grant an extension.
Regardless, let’s look at who signed the petition.
Are you in or out?
Below is a map that outlines the Marcellus Shale in New York State. Upon review, it’s important to keep in mind that while the brown line represents the outer reaches of the Marcellus Shale’s footprint, many counties located within will not see development due to regulations and other factors.
The counties left out of the Marcellus Shale, according to the DEC map above, are listed below. We have broken this down further to note the number of signatories signing this petition from each county listed. Again, its worth noting this list doesn’t include any counties with significant development potential.
Included among these numbers are signatories from mayors, to supervisors and even fire chiefs and highway superintendents. A broad brush was used to find any official that would oppose fracturing in areas where it would never occur. As a result, 229 signatories were gained from counties where no Marcellus Shale development is expected occur and many are from officials with no responsibility overseeing natural gas production.
But what’s more telling is the number of signatories from counties where, if permitted, natural gas development is most likely to take place. In review, it’s noticeable there are three elected signatories from Chenango County, Broome County has two , Tioga County has four, Chemung County has five, and Steuben lists 10 signers. Taken together, 24 of the elected officials who signed the petition were from counties where Marcellus Shale development is likely to occur.
Local officials tend to have their fingers on the pulse of public opinion in their communities and these numbers are perhaps some of the strongest evidence of support for natural gas development. If opponents can’t gain more than 24 names from the Southern Tier and have to go to areas with little potential for development to garner support, that says a lot. It could be that activists have already lost the battle in these communities as the folks who live here actually have to make a living, pay bills and support their family in the Southern Tier’s stagnant economy. Their support is a bit harder to gain than that of Lady Gaga, failed rocker Sean Lennon or his mother Yoko Ono, none of whom who actually have to work to “make ends meet.”
No surprise there…
There were some names we knew we’d see among the signatories and some counties we expected would contain a substantial number of signers as well. For instance, 72 signatories were from Tompkins County with 18 of those hailing from Ithaca. It makes sens this area was responsible for nearly a fifth of all signatures. After all, its the unofficial headquarters of the anti-natural gas movement hosting the likes of the Park Foundation as well as the research team of Howarth/Ingraffea, and others from Cornell who’ve been working overtime to influence local decision on natural gas development.
Tompkins is on the fringe in an area where development may or may not occur and it’s also home to one of the lawsuits which will impact “home rule” in the state. That case has been combined with another filed by Jennifer Huntington, an Otsego County dairy farmer, who is suing the Town of Middlefield for banning natural gas development and infringing on her rights as a private property owner. The combined lawsuits are headed to an appeals court this year.
One name we knew we would see on the petition was that of Dominic Frongillo from the Town of Caroline, also in Tompkins County. We have attended many meetings there and have heard him speak against natural gas development on more than a few occasions. In fact, he once stated
“A 30 day comment period during the holidays during a time of major national holidays is far too short to allow citizens as well as local governments to comment on these incredibly important regulations.”
It’s hard not to see humor in that comment, as the regulations and the SGEIS have been in consideration for over four years and the most recent regulations contain minimal revisions. What’s more? Frongillo is already sufficiently familiar with the documents. So much so, in fact, that he has provided his insights to many other groups and activists on a number of occasions. Of course, this isn’t about being able to review minor changes to an already lengthy review process. Rather, it is a request for delay for delay’s sake.
Along those same lines, we also weren’t surprised to see Daniel Sturm, Supervisor for the Town of Bethel in Sullivan County, on the list. He’s been speaking against natural gas development for quite a while, and we’ve been following what’s been going on in Bethel since Rachael joined Energy In Depth. In fact, below is a video of Dan receiving an honest welcome. Here, an individual helps Dan understand that his resistance to natural gas development has very real consequences for families that are struggling to make ends meet across the Southern Tier and would benefit greatly from the economic activity natural gas development will bring.
Do they give awards for hypocrisy?
Another name we expected to see is Mayor Matt Ryan of Binghamton in Broome County. His plan for Binghamton’s growth includes growing marijuana for profit while denying residents the opportunity to benefit from natural gas development. Of course due to its proximity to development, Binghamton is already seeing benefits. Already hotels in the region are at maximum capacity and businesses working with the natural gas industry are booming, providing jobs for the youth of the Southern Tier where there were none before.
But Ryan will never be satisfied. This much is noted in one of his recent public statements where he stated:
“Please governor Cuomo, you said this was going to be based on science. Science takes time you haven’t given us enough time. You haven’t given us an opportunity to publicly comment.”
Nowhere in this statement is a mention of the four years or review already conducted, the statements from 3 U.S. presidential Administrations attesting to fracturing’s safety or previous EPA studies and others noting the process if safe. In spite of this, and the Mayor’s travels to places like Dimock where he provided his opinions along with taxpayers resources to folks who didn’t want or need them, the Mayor didn’t have enough time to collect his thoughts and offer public comment. This is perplexing to anyone but those who recognize the Mayor simply wants to delay the process indefinitely. His “concern” is merely an excuse to reach this end goal.
What’s more? Mayor Ryan’s actions have cost the City greatly in terms of money and progress. Under his direction, Binghamton lost a lawsuit for passing a moratorium. If it were up to Ryan alone, he would rather support an illegal industry instead of one with a track record of safe operations and proven job creating abilities. Luckily for the landowners of Broome County, aside from the two signers of this petition, most of the county’s elected officials support natural gas development. In fact, instead of wasting taxpayer resources, they are utilizing them to train their local workers to gear up for the opportunity natural gas development will bring to their county.
How about that? Elected leaders using local resources to help their constituents improve their quality of life and economic circumstances rather than fighting a battle with city resources on behalf of a wealthy few. Well, if you want that type of leadership, you might consider moving out of Binghamton.
Another signatory of the petition is Sue Skidmore, the Mayor of Elmira in Chemung County. She was a prominent figure at the press conference when the petition was released. In her advocacy against natural gas development she has argued:
“We are the guinea pigs. I don’t want to be a guinea pig. I want to have it proven if we’re going to do this we need to do it right.”
Well, we agree. Elmira is certainly a guinea pig for what can be expected to come in New York. The town has already seen significant economic benefits from shale development. Chief among them, the airport has seen a tremendous surge in activity and the New York Times noted the many economic benefits already being realized in the town like increased sales tax receipts, full hotels, increased renting and buying of real estate and ancillary local businesses benefiting from activity happening just over the border.
Despite this, Elmira’s mayor continues to grandstand against natural gas development. This is especially noteworthy given that Elmira is a large user of natural gas. The chart below notes that 83% of households depend directly on the natural gas development she opposes for heating purposes. How does a mayor of a city where nearly nine out of 10 households depend on natural gas get the chutzpah to oppose it? Especially when the alternative sources of providing heat (heating oil and wood) in a very cold region (today’s temp according to weather.com feels like -6 degrees Fahrenheit) release far more pollutants into the environment.
Rachael is from Afton and wasn’t surprised to see two of the three Chenango County signatories hailing from her hometown. Once those officials have to run for office watch out. Especially considering that candidates running on an anti-natural gas platform lost their races, on average, by a ratio of 70-30 to a pro gas candidate. Why is this? Because town’s such as Afton are prepared for what will come when development is allowed. Afton in particular has one of the most comprehensive road usage agreements in the state. Their residents there understand development and can make educated decisions and reject fear based emotional pleas.
Finally, its worth noting the petition included signatories from the Village of Fredonia, in Chautauqua County. Fredonia was the first town in the U.S. to host a natural gas well. That occurred way back in 1821 and that well, and others like it, supplied natural gas for stores in town and helped establish the nation’s first natural gas company in 1828. With a history that goes back that far and considering the technological advancements that have been made since then, it’s hard to imagine anyone from Fredonia being against one of the products that put it on the map.
This whole effort is another attempt to gin up numbers that seem impressive at first but become much less so upon further review. Similar tactics were used by activists who rallied against the MARC-1 pipeline in Pennsylvania. There they argued 22,000 comments showed the local population was against the project. There was only one problem. Few of those comments came from individuals located anywhere near where the project was being built.
Whether trying to cook the books for opposition towards a Pennsylvania pipeline or attempting to over hype the number of elected officials against natural gas development, usually it becomes pretty clear these stunts are less noteworthy than advertised.
The silent majority is also recognizing these foolish messages, as can be seen in the following letter to the editor printed in the Binghamton Press and Sun from George Richter, a Chemung County Supervisor:
On Jan. 8, the three local Gannett newspapers carried as the lead story this item: “Officials seek more time to comment on fracking.” The evening before, at least three local television broadcasts used this as their lead story as well.
The one thing that I noticed to be missing from this news is that almost all of the officials that were cited in the article represent communities in which no gas exploration is likely to occur. Where exactly in the cities of Binghamton, Elmira and Ithaca do the mayors expect to see drilling rigs? And the Town of Caroline already has a gas drilling ban in place.
Moreover, there is likely none of us in local government positions that have enough scientific and technical expertise to provide responsible comment on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s findings, anyway. All of us, including those represented in the article, are part-time community leaders with other full-time careers.
The vast majority of the town officials where gas exploration will likely take place if permitted have taken no formal position in this matter. We have passed no bans or moratoriums, nor we have we passed resolutions of support. With this review now approaching five years, the last thing that is needed is more time. We are ready for decisions upon which we can act. (emphasis added)
If New York does permit this type of gas exploration, all of our communities may see both negative and positive effects, even the three cities mentioned. It is our preparation to manage and mitigate these effects to best serve our residents. So many of us are frustrated by those who will not channel their energy toward developing solutions. (emphasis added)
It is very easy to continually declare what “we don’t want.” It is far too easy to make such declarations, as opposed to developing a positive course of action. Our citizens should expect much more from our leaders. Leaders should be seeking solutions to problems; and one of the greatest problems in this nation is our energy resources.
We cannot continue to be content with the energy to run our homes, our businesses, our cities and our cars to be sourced from “somewhere else.” All three cities referenced in the article rely heavily on natural gas as a key energy source. Let’s see if there is a way for us to safely develop our own local energy source so that we will not have to continue to rely on “somewhere else.”
My concern with the highly visibility of this news item is that it may provide the false impression that local community leaders are largely opposed to allowing fracking activity in the Southern Tier. Those communities that truly do not want gas exploration should attempt to ban it, as several have already done. But understand that your neighboring community should have the same choice for their community. I, for one, resent the efforts by a few elected officials to extend their authority beyond their borders.
So well said!