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May 9, 2013

Libous blocking fracking bill

Passage could hurt wife's business

Bloomberg News
The Daily Star

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Sen. Tom Libous, a champion of fracking in the New York Legislature, is blocking a bill that would delay drilling for natural gas for at least two more years. Passage of the measure would harm the prospects of a real-estate company founded by Libous’s wife and run by a business partner and campaign donor.

The donor, Luciano Piccirilli, operates Da Vinci II LLC, which owns 230 acres in Plymouth, in Chenango County. Da Vinci II’s rights to underground natural gas are leased to a drilling company, property and corporate records show.

Piccirilli’s company stands to gain if the 60-year-old Binghamton Republican senator stymies opponents of fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into rock to free gas. Da Vinci II would get a share of the revenue stream from any well, and the value of the land could rise.

Owners of mineral rights typically receive royalty payments of at least 12.5 percent of gas revenue, according to a 2011 report to the state by Ecology and Environment Inc. (EEI) of Lancaster, New York. Development would “substantially increase” the value of land, according to the study.

Piccirilli and Libous share deep ties. Da Vinci II was formed by Frances Libous in 2005. Piccirilli also co-owns two Florida properties with Libous and was general contractor for the senator’s $415,000 lakeside house, according to property records and a building permit. Raymond Rolston, a subcontractor who oversaw paving at the home, said in an interview this week that the FBI asked him about his work there.

Bonnie Mariano, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman in Albany, declined to comment on the questioning.

Libous said in a radio interview today on Binghamton’s WNBF-AM that he isn’t aware of any FBI investigation and said he supports gas drilling to benefit the region.

“I stand to gain nothing personal from fracking, and I mean that,” Libous said. “I’m doing what I think is right.”

Fracking is one of the most contentious issues before the state legislature. The body in the past two years has legalized gay marriage, approved a measure limiting bullets carried in gun magazines and closed more than $12 billion in budget gaps, all at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat.

Yet Cuomo has been calling for lawmakers to better police their ethics after two senators and an assemblyman, all Democrats from the New York City area, have been accused in federal corruption cases since April. Another Democratic senator, Shirley Huntley of Queens, pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to commit mail fraud.

It is against that backdrop of triumph and scandal that lawmakers must decide on the fracking ban, a decision that could mean billions for state coffers -- and for investors. The battle pits landowners seeking the type of economic growth seen in Pennsylvania, where thousands of fracking wells have been drilled since 2007, against environmental groups and residents who say it will damage drinking water, render farmland unusable and ruin the quality of life.

Since 2008, New York has had a moratorium on fracking as it studies its environmental effects and develops regulations.

In March, the Democratic-led assembly passed a bill that would extend the ban for two years. In the Senate, Libous, who as head of the Republican campaign committee oversaw the raising of $10.4 million in the 2012 election cycle, said he would stop a similar measure from coming to a vote.

“I’m going to make sure that it doesn’t,” Libous said in a March interview in Albany.

“Tom Libous is one of the only mouthpieces we have in Albany that has been in support of this from the beginning,” said Dan Fitzsimmons, the president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a group that supports fracking. “He’s very interested in helping his area.”

Libous represents Southern Tier counties that sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a formation stretching to West Virginia that may hold enough natural gas to supply the U.S. for about six years, according to the federal Energy Department.

The fortunes of his supporter’s company could be boosted by what that shale holds.

Land prices just across the border in Pennsylvania have climbed by as much as 100 percent per acre because of fracking, said Thad DeMulder, a Binghamton-based vice president with RealtyUSA who also runs an office in Pennsylvania.