(Adds quote from West)
By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY, N.Y., June 30 New York state's top court
ruled on Monday that towns have the authority to ban gas
drilling within their borders, giving a boost to opponents of
the drilling method known as fracking.
The Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision upheld drilling bans
in the Ithaca suburb of Dryden and in Middlefield, near
Cooperstown, saying the laws were extensions of the towns'
Drilling company Norse Energy USA and an upstate dairy
farmer separately sued the towns, claiming the bans violated a
law designed to create uniform statewide regulations on the oil
and gas industry.
The court disagreed, saying the law was designed to bar only
local ordinances that could impede the state's ability to
regulate drilling activities.
"Plainly, the zoning laws in these cases are directed at
regulating land use generally and do not attempt to govern the
details, procedures or operations of the oil and gas
industries," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court.
The decision affirmed rulings by three lower courts.
The plaintiffs had told the court that upholding the bans
would make drilling companies reluctant to invest in the state,
since they would be faced with a patchwork of local laws that
In 2011, Dryden and Middlefield were among the first of more
than 170 municipalities in New York to ban gas drilling as state
officials considered whether to lift a moratorium on fracking,
which is still in place.
Fracking involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand
deep below ground to release oil and natural gas trapped within
rock formations. It has allowed companies to tap a wealth of new
natural gas reserves in other states, but critics say the
procedure has polluted water and air, and caused seismic
activity near wells.
Officials from Dryden and their attorneys praised the
"Today's ruling shows all of America that a committed group
of citizens and public officials can stand together against
fearful odds and successfully defend their homes, their way of
life, and the environment against those who would harm them all
in the name of profit," Dryden Deputy Supervisor Jason Leifer
said in a statement.
Thomas West, who represented Norse Energy, said the decision
would discourage further investment in the state, which has
already been dented by the six-year moratorium on fracking.
"Most industry have already fled the state, but the question
is, will they come back," West said. "I think that the willing
takers will be few and far between."
In a dissent, Judge Eugene Pigott said the towns' bans went
beyond their zoning authority because they included detailed
language about drilling activities, such as the storage of gas
and use of drilling equipment.
The bans "do more than just regulate land use; they regulate
oil, gas and solution mining industries under the pretext of
zoning," wrote Pigott, who was joined by Judge Robert Smith.
The cases are Wallach v. Dryden and Cooperstown Holstein
Corp v. Middlefield, New York State Court of Appeals, Nos. 130
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Ted Botha, Lisa Von
Ahn and Jeffrey Benkoe)