Marcellus Shale

Lather, Rinse and Repeat in Ithaca

Tracy Marisa
Webmaster – Dryden Safe Energy Coalition

Thursday, March 22nd, four of us from Dryden Safe Energy Coalition—Henry Kramer, Tom Reynolds, Ron Szymanski, and I—attended a presentation in Ithaca by the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG). What is TCCOG?  “TCCOG is an association of local governments organized to provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for more efficient and fiscally responsible delivery of government services.”  Sounds almost innocuous, doesn’t it?  And, it’s paid for with our taxes.

There’s been an entire series of these TCCOG  shows in the last year or so that go from town to town in Tompkins County repeating the same lopsided—yet “neutral”—presentation. Their materials for this one announced, “This presentation is not intended to support or oppose gas drilling activities.”

There’s a recurring theme here: the anti’s find a pattern that works and then they use it over and over again, town to town, county to county.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

And—it’s not really about hydraulic fracturing.

The presentation last week differed from earlier ones in that it had a target audience of municipal officials.  Why them?  Because the title of the show was “Taxes and Drilling: Revenue Potential for Municipal Governments?” (Subtitled: “The first in a series of presentations related to gas drilling.”)  Ahh, another series.  Here are the videos:

They started out, “…this talk will focus on the amount of potential funding municipalities might expect should natural gas exploration come to town.” In typical TCCOG fashion, they then assumed as given that which they should be trying to prove, “Counties, cities, towns, and villages can expect increased costs should an uptick in natural gas activity occur in the area. Whether it be fixing roads, adding police officers, monitoring air and water, or adding administrative staff, municipalities are concerned about being left empty-handed.”

The presenters, Town of Caroline Supervisor Don Barber and Tompkins County Legislator Carol Chock, minimized direct revenue streams for governmental entities arising at the wellhead, and ignored altogether other sources of revenue such as sales taxes.  And, in their view of the world, no amount of revenue could ever hope to keep up with all the additional costs that towns and counties would supposedly incur in any event.

Several of the pro-gas individuals who attended the meeting challenged these assumptions:

One supporter of natural gas noted the presentation was unduly pessimistic and had only addressed the absolute worst case scenario (15:30 -20:30).  Another challenged the push for a severance tax as a way to secure some money for supposed indirect damages from natural gas development even though a town doesn’t permit it (25:37).

There’s lots more and you can read the “white paper” that formed the basis for the presentation yourself, but what jumped out at me from the first page was this: “Our research uncovered four conditions we feel are necessary prerequisites to considering permits.”

That sounded like more of the “death by a thousand studies” strategy anti’s seem to be using to attack natural gas development.  We see this, too, in the health-impacts bill, recently introduced in the New York State legislature. In other words, the anti’s are banking on health and other studies happening ad nauseum, all of whose results must be in, of course, before New York State can permit any development.

Our protagonists, Barber and Chock, said they’ve already been to Albany to tell the state that all the financial stuff, all the tax studies and so forth, must meet TCCOG’s high standards before the state issues any permits…much the same thinking as endlessly studying the health impacts of a business that isn’t even permitted to operate yet, natural gas exploration.

But natural gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing are really just incidental distractions from the larger goal. While we’re watching one “hand” grab our attention with calls for natural gas  health studies and interminable arguments over ad valorem taxes and impact fees, the other “hand” is continuing to grab power in seemingly unrelated ways, for instance, through Critical Environmental Area (CEA) designations.  Dryden is trying to designate 62% of the town as a CEA.  Just try making any improvement to your property if you live in a CEA, not going to happen short of time-consuming reviews. Other methods of their delay strategy include the use of open space inventories and aquifer protection programs (all of these are in the works in Dryden).

And, we’re seeing the same pattern being repeated from town to town in Tompkins County…first the comprehensive plan, then the zoning laws, then the natural gas development ban (in Dryden, it’s actually a ban on all energy development!), then the CEA designations and all the rest.

You may believe that all of those things are the results of anti-natural gas fracturing phobia, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  Instead, it goes more like this: a conveniently emotional issue, hydraulic fracturing, is the thin edge of the wedge intended to pry private property loose from its rightful owners, in bits and pieces, in shims and splinters, until finally all that’s left is sawdust—and property rights have ceased to exist. As Dryden’s current zoning law says, “anything that is not permitted is prohibited.”

Our towns and counties are reverting to medieval fiefdoms and we’re the serfs. This never ends well.

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