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April 23, 2014

Advocates seek to join drill ban case

Both sides of the natural gas drilling debate are lining up to become party to a potentially precedent-setting case that will determine whether municipal government has the authority to ban hydrofracking, as scores of towns throughout the state have done over the past three years.

A group of 26 companies and organizations  — including Brewery Ommegang in Middlefield and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York  — are asking the state Court of Appeals to grant them “friend of the court” status and have their position argued in support of the home rule authority of towns.

The interested parties want to step into the twin pending cases — involving challenges to drilling bans enacted in 2011 by Middlefield and the Tompkins County town of Dryden — that are scheduled to be heard by New York’s highest court on June 3.

The trail-blazing Middlefield and Dryden bans have been repeated scores of times by towns throughout upstate New York, although pro-drilling forces have largely thwarted such proposals in Chenango County.

The challenge to the Middlefield ban was brought by Cooperstown Holstein Corp. of Middlefield, a dairy farm operated by Jennifer Huntington. The Dryden ban is being challenged by Norse Energy. Groups seeking friend of the court status on that side of the divide include the New York Farm Bureau, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York and the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, said Scott Kurkoski, a lawyer for the latter group.

Those challenging the bans argue that the drilling prohibitions went beyond the towns’ legal authority. They also maintain that only the state Department of Environmental Conservation is empowered to regulate drilling, although neither the state agency nor the Cuomo administration which controls it have sought to become involved in the dispute.

“It’s another example of how our governor is failing to lead on the issue of energy,” said Kurkoski.

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