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October 27, 2012

Drilling advocate rips research

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — MIDDLEFIELD — Worcester Town Board member David Parker on Friday upbraided a prominent zoning consultant who advises local governments about the potential effects of shale gas drilling operations and the need to update zoning laws to deal with the possible arrival of the industry in New York.

The consultant, Ted Fink, was explaining his report for Tompkins County on various projected effects from shale gas extraction operations when Parker — an ardent proponent of drilling and member of a landowners group — accused him of “instilling fear” with information that was “way outdated.”

Fink’s presentation to the Otsego County Natural Gas Advisory Committee thus became the latest backdrop for the contentious debate about hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. During the past year, dozens of New York towns have passed local laws banning fracking or imposing a moratorium on the activity, despite the gas industry’s insistence that they have usurped the authority of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Gas drilling advocates claimed Fink’s work for Tompkins County was tainted because it was paid for, in part, by the Park Foundation, established by the late Roy Park, a media baron for whom the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College was named.

Fink told The Daily Star he was hired to do the work by Tompkins County, and his research was “totally independent” of the Park Foundation. He emphasized that it was the county that arranged the funding. His firm was paid $10,000 for the report.

“This is a planning exercise, and people often get bogged down in the assumptions and the facts and the figures, and that is not the actual purpose of the build-out analysis,” Fink said. “It’s to understand better what to be better prepared for in the future. So the takeaway from doing a community-impact assessment is to identify what the potential could be and then to plan for what may or may not happen — because if you fail to plan, that’s really planning to fail.”

Also questioning some of the projections in Fink’s research was dairy farmer Jennifer Huntington of Middlefield, who is waging a court battle aimed at upending her town’s ban on gas drilling. The town prevailed in the initial round of the litigation, and her company, Cooperstown Holstein Inc., backed by the gas industry, is appealing that ruling in a case that legal experts have said will settle the question of whether towns have the authority to

ban fracking.

For instance, Huntington said, she is skeptical about information cited by Fink that indicated 25 percent of farmers who had leased land to gas drillers gave up farming after collecting royalties. She said there may be other explanations for why they retired from farming, including growing too old to continue the activity.

Fink was invited to appear before tha panel by Otsego County Rep. Beth Rosenthal, D-Roseboom, who said planning for the possible arrival of the gas industry and understanding its effects “is the smart thing to do.”

“My overriding question is: Why are those so in favor of drilling not wanting to plan for it?” asked Rosenthal, an opponent of fracking. She said the data presented by Fink was sound and was mostly drawn from industry, academic and state sources.

County Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, the committee’s chairman and a farmer who supports gas drilling, said he was concerned that landowners who want to allow drilling on their property will be “outnumbered” by local residents in favor of restricting gas development.

Fink said that “zoning is not immutable,” and that local laws could always be redrawn or repealed to keep pace with any technological upgrades made by the industry, such as reducing its reliance on trucking to transport water and other materials to and from drilling sites.

Powers later told The Daily Star that the county planning department has been on top of preparing for  possible drilling, and that there is no need to hire a consultant to advise the cash-strapped county.

“We’ve done our due diligence in Otsego County,” he said.