There was a meeting last week in the Town of Caroline in Tompkins County, New York, where a group called Residents Opposing Shale-Gas Extraction (ROUSE) gave a not so rousing presentation regarding a petition to ban natural gas exploration in the town. The crowd of around 75 was pretty evenly split between those in support of the ban and those against it, which led to tempers getting a little out of hand at times, especially when it came to the main presenter, Bill Pokadul. Those supporting natural gas development did well and demonstrated that facts can trump hysteria when they are presented by residents who show up to speak their minds. Whether it’s “Sweet Caroline” or not remains to be seen but the pro-gas side did well – that much was clear.
The Petition and ROUSE Presentation
The petition presented to the town board at the meeting was supposedly signed by 1,146 residents of Caroline, about 38% of the overall population. But let’s take a closer look at this “so-called” representative sample.
Bill offered a slide showing a map of the town with dots on the houses where people had signed the petition. Interestingly, and not too surprising, all of the dots were clustered in predominantly one area on the map, generally representing landowners owning smaller acreages (less than 5 acres on average) and/or those who own land but do not actually reside full time in the town. He also admitted those with fewer acres were the quickest to sign the petition and encompassed the vast majority of the signatures. What he didn’t say was that he also solicited signatures through online petitions, one for residents and one for non-residents, which we will not link up, but you can easily find if you do a Google search. This leads to some logical questions. Were the people who “signed” the petition, actually the ones to write their names on it? How many of those signatures actually came from non-residents? In addition, Residents of the town have leased roughly 55% of the town’s total acreage for natural gas production. This also suggests a majority of landowners here favor development and are opposed to a ban.
Although Bill claimed to have printed and distributed informational packets from various sources, he must have missed the information on the New York ad valorem tax, because he suggested people would not get money if they didn’t have large tracts of land. The truth is that New York’s tax structure allows everyone in a town to benefit from natural gas development where it is occurring. Take a look at this video about 55 seconds in where a Vestal resident described what this tax could mean for New York State a few months ago.
Questions and Answers—Things Get Heated
Even though Bill had been eager to showcase his petition, he wasn’t so excited to answer the questions he received. The rudeness of those who distributed the petition was appalling and Jeff wasn’t very good at keeping his composure or being polite. When a commenter preceded a question with a comment he would quickly put them down. He was asked if he had brought any actual numbers or facts showing the potential positive and negative impacts to the area, and what each person in an area can gain through natural gas exploration. He responded, seemingly shocked by the question, stating he didn’t, because that isn’t how you get people to sign a petition. He seems to have taken some lessons from Josh Fox. Much of the audience, in any case, wasn’t buying what he was selling.
After few got their questions answered, because several people were rudely cut off, everyone agreed the question period was moot and it was time to move onto general comments.
Comments from the Audience
During comments, many speakers stood up for their rights. A Chesapeake Energy employee began by painting a picture for the audience, describing in detail his typical workday. He spoke about the precautions the company takes in their operations and the safety checks that must be performed before they even begin work each morning. Safety is a top priority at Chesapeake and just about every other natural gas producer. Everyone at Chesapeake is given specific training in the unlikely event something unpredictable occurs and work stops any time an unexpected malfunction occurs- regardless of the size. Nothing resumes until someone qualified can come and correct the malfunction.
Another individual pleaded with the board to let natural gas development come to Caroline. She discussed how much they needed it and how the area could benefit.
Another man referenced New York law and, in my opinion, made the comment of the night. He discussed Environmental Conservation Law, Section 23-0303, paragraph 2: the state’s decision “shall supersede all local laws or ordinances relating to the oil, gas, and solutions mining industry:” This law also makes it clear the ONLY item a town has jurisdiction over is road usage laws/agreements. He concluded by asking the people of the town not to waste the board’s time or the towns tax money by seeking to create a law that is based on questionable grounds that could be superseded by the state.
Although it will be an uphill climb, after witnessing the energy of the residents of Caroline, I think they will be successful in showing the board how much the entire community can benefit from natural gas development. It will be “Sweet Caroline” when landowners get to keep their property rights and develop the resource beneath their feet.