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By Jon Campbell / Gannett New York
Posted Dec 18, 2019 at 5:00 AM
CONKLIN — Dan Fitzsimmons was convinced the key to his family’s financial future was resting a mile beneath the surface.

Major energy companies were willing to pay landowners life-altering sums of money for the oil-and-gas rights to their property, including Fitzsimmons’ 185 acres in rural Broome County.

That is, they were willing to pay — until a fateful meeting in Albany turned New York’s Great Gas Rush into the Great Gas Rush That Wasn’t.

Tuesday marked five years since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration first said it would ban large-scale hydraulic fracturing, the controversial method used to free gas from underground rock formations like the Marcellus Shale that stretches across the Southern Tier and Catskills.

New York’s decision made it the first shale-bearing state to back a ban. And it put an end to a remarkable six-year period of debate, study and protest, where activists, landowners and gas companies clashed everywhere from small-town board meetings in the Southern Tier to the halls of power in Albany.

The announcement — slowly unveiled at the state Capitol during a two-hour meeting of Cuomo’s cabinet a month after he was re-elected — was a huge victory for environmentalists and activists who galvanized across the state to fight for a ban.

They warned the chemicals injected deep underground in the fracking process, as well as the associated boost in truck traffic and industrial activity, had the potential to wreak havoc on the state’s pristine waters, air and landscape.

This is the story of how a single governmental decision five years ago has helped shape energy policy in New York and continues to affect the landowners, activists, regulators and energy industry representatives who spent years working to make their case.

‘ABSOLUTELY’ THE RIGHT DECISION, REGULATOR SAYS

Today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly touts New York’s fracking ban as a key plank of his environmental bona fides.

It wasn’t always clear it would work out that way.

While he was campaigning for governor in 2010, Cuomo sounded like someone open to fracking’s potential as a source of domestic fuel, releasing a 2010 policy book that suggested it could provide a “badly needed boost to the economy of the Southern Tier.”

Nine months after taking office the next year, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued a draft review that would have allowed large-scale fracking to proceed with strict environmental protections, including an outright ban on drilling in the New York City watershed in the Catskills.

At the same time, the DEC commissioned a study that found fracking would create anywhere from 6,000 to 37,000 jobs in New York.

In 2012 and 2013 — with Cuomo seeking re-election — the administration floated a plan that would have allowed fracking to proceed on a limited basis, just a few wells in communities that welcomed it.

But a small pilot program wouldn’t have provided the economic benefit the Southern Tier craved, said Joe Martens, who led the fracking review as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

And it would have enraged the activists and environmentalists who embraced a new mantra: Not one well.

“On a small scale, it wasn’t going to have a benefit to the communities that a full-scale program would have,” Martens recalled this month. “So what’s the point? It was a bit of a trial balloon, but in the end, I just don’t think it made sense.”

The Cuomo administration dropped the idea and embraced a ban, unveiling its decision on Dec. 17, 2014. At the time, Martens made the case that drilling wouldn’t be economical because the state’s environmental protections would have taken a third of the Marcellus off the table.

Today, Martens is more convinced than ever it was the right decision, calling it “one of the most important decisions the state has ever made on the environmental front.”

In June, Cuomo and the state Legislature approved an ambitious new climate-change law that promises to fundamentally reshape the way the state produces and uses power.

By 2030, the state must produce 75% of its power from renewable sources. By 2050, the law requires the state to cut its emissions levels by 85% from 1990 levels and offset the rest with green projects.

Had fracking been allowed, it could have hindered the state’s new climate goals, said Martens, who now heads the NY Offshore Wind Alliance.

“It was a really tough decision at the time but in retrospect, I think it was absolutely the right one,” he said. “I feel better about it all the time.”

ACTIVISTS STILL HOUNDING CUOMO

Long before Cuomo embraced a fracking ban, there was an army of activists and environmentalists who were hellbent on getting him there.

Anti-fracking groups sprung up in communities across the state, united by their desire to convince Cuomo and local governments to ban fracking, which they saw as a continued threat to the state’s land, air and — perhaps most importantly — water.

At the same time, environmental organizations in Albany worked the halls of the Capitol and the DEC, warning them of fracking’s detriments.

Together, they peppered Cuomo’s office with letters and phone calls. They flooded the DEC with more than 200,000 public comments. They protested by the thousands in the Capitol and outside Cuomo’s State of the State addresses, often with help from stars like Mark Ruffalo, Yoko Ono and the late Pete Seeger.

And they followed the governor to countless press conferences, fundraisers and even his polling location, a constant presence urging him to prevent a drill from ever hitting the ground.

“We started to see these huge rallies because people were angry,” said Katherine Nadeau, then a program director with Environmental Advocates of New York.

“You’re talking about changing their way of life and threatening water quality, their house — people are going to take that very seriously, and they did. People came out in droves.”

Martens said the constant pressure from both advocates and opponents for fracking “wasn’t fun” to deal with.

“It wore me down emotionally a bit,” he said. “But it was all part of the process. People felt very strongly about it on both sides, frankly, and I was very sympathetic to both sides.”

Since the fracking ban was announced, anti-fracking activists have continued to organize against any projects that advance fossil fuels — pipelines and gas-fueled power plants, mostly — all around the state.

They’ve had plenty of success: The Cuomo administration has rejected several gas-fueled projects in the years since the ban was unveiled.

Perhaps fittingly, anti-fracking activists will celebrate the five-year anniversary of the ban Tuesday by protesting outside a private Cuomo campaign fundraiser in New York City, where they will demand the state reject all new fossil-fuel infrastructure in the state and accelerate the shift to renewable energy.

“It’s a very natural extension of the fracking campaign,” said Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director for Food & Water Watch, a national group that was very involved in New York’s push for a fracking ban.

“We really can’t be adding any new fossil fuel infrastructure to the mix at a minimum. That’s kind of a first step and then you have to do everything else.”

LANDOWNERS WONDER: WHAT NOW?

Anti-fracking activists weren’t the only ones who banded together.

When gas company representatives blanketed the Southern Tier in 2007 and 2008, offering up thousands of dollars per acre and royalty payments to lease oil-and-gas rights to property, landowners went on to form coalitions to bolster their negotiating power.

The coalitions quickly became massive, representing landowners that held around 650,000 acres of property across the Marcellus region — much of which was along the border of Pennsylvania, where large-scale fracking has long been allowed.

Those coalitions became the loudest voice in favor of fracking, hopeful that natural-gas exploration could be the key to financial salvation in the struggling Southern Tier.

They held out that hope until the very moment Cuomo’s administration announced the ban, convinced he would allow a limited pilot program before eventually opening the gates further.

“There were many people who were blindsided — our local politicians included,” said Scott Kurkoski, an attorney for the Joint Landowners Coalition, an umbrella group that included dozens of smaller coalitions.

“People who were in touch with the governor’s office on a regular basis were blindsided. No one knew.”

Two coalitions struck early deals with gas companies, including a coalition in the Broome County town of Deposit that paid landowners $110 million — $2,411 an acre — without a single drill ever hitting the ground.

But most held out in hopes of a better deal, confident that New York couldn’t deny the economic upside of fracking.

Today, landowners like Fitzsimmons — president of the Joint Landowners Coalition — are forced to confront what could have been and ponder what’s next

“Believe me, the thought goes through my mind — sell it and move, go someplace else like Pennsylvania where you can do something,” said Fitzsimmons, whose “Friends of Natural Gas” sign still hangs from his red barn.

“But you’d have nothing. The property values are so low here.”

The Southern Tier, long one of the state’s slowest economies, continues to struggle.

As Cuomo took office in 2011, the Binghamton metropolitan area had about 122,000 people with a job or looking for work, according to the state Department of Labor.

By last month, that number dropped 13% to 106,300, continuing a decline that dates back to at least 1990.

It’s a similar story in the nearby Elmira area, which saw its labor force drop from 41,100 to 34,900 over the same time period — a 15% decline.

The day the ban was announced, Cuomo said figuring out how to boost the Southern Tier economy remained a “big challenge for us.”

“I’ve never had anyone say to me: I believe fracking is great,” he said at the time. “What I get is: I have no alternative to fracking ... and I own a farm and I have to pay a mortgage and I have to pay these incredible property taxes and there’s no economic opportunity.”

GAS INDUSTRY GIVES UP ON NEW YORK

The natural-gas industry, meanwhile, has all but given up on New York.

XTO, the gas company that paid Deposit landowners $110 million to lease their mineral rights, had an option to extend those leases a few years ago.

The company declined. The leases still show up on title searches when a property sells, but the company — since acquired by Exxon — has been releasing property owners who simply call and ask, according to Joanne McGibney, a local realtor.

As large-scale fracking has expanded in other states, traditional natural-gas drilling — still allowed in New York — has steadily declined in the state, dropping from 20.4 billion cubic feet in 2014 to 10.6 billion cubic feet last year, according to the DEC.

New York consumes about 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year, making it reliant on fracked gas produced from other states.

“We’re simply not allowing our own citizens to produce it,” said Karen Moreau, New York executive director for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group.

“We’re taking it from our neighbors next door, and those communities are benefiting, while our severely economically challenged Southern Tier hasn’t been allowed to.”

Moreau said she still believes its possible New York reverses course on its fracking ban, but she said it would likely take an energy crisis or something similar to force a change.

It would also likely require a change in governor.

Cuomo was succinct when he was asked in 2015 whether he would ever consider lifting the ban.

“I would never,” he said.

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