January 21, 2012

Fracking foes plan Albany blitz

January 21, 2012 BY JOE MAHONEY Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN -- Activists out to stop hydrofracking in New York are gearing up for a major Albany lobbying blitz next Monday -- one that will include a push to enact home-rule legislation authored by Sen. James Seward, R-Milford.

Seward's bill, it turns out, has some competition in the form of another piece of legislation whose sponsor says matches Seward's local control goals while going further to erect new barriers to would-be gas drillers in New York.

Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, said his "Property Owners Bill of Rights" legislation is "more comprehensive" than Seward's bill because it would also require the gas industry to disclose all chemicals used and all compounds created from the fracking process. It would also force the industry to pay property owners 150 percent of the market value of real estate contaminated by drilling. It also requires drillers to provide property owners with free medical monitoring for life.

Ball, considered a maverick in the ranks of GOP senators, is also proposing a one-year moratorium on horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

Asked if Seward would back a moratorium, the senator's spokesman, Jeff Bishop, said New York already has a "de facto moratorium" on hydrofracking while the state Department of Environmental Conservation wades through public comments on draft drilling regulations.

"His focus is on the home-rule legislation," Bishop said. "He has continued to meet with individuals and groups on all sides of the issue. He is not out to stop natural gas drilling as long as it is found to be safe, if and when the DEC regulations are finalized."

Lou Allstadt of Cooperstown, a retired Mobil Oil Corporation executive and a vocal critic of the draft DEC rules, said he could understand why Seward and others would be hesitant to back a moratorium before the DEC determines whether it's possible to keep fracking from damaging the environment and threatening public health.

But Allstadt, who plans to attend the rally in Albany, also argued that the package of draft drilling regulations is so flawed that "the DEC ought to pull it and start from scratch."

He said Seward's home-rule bill represents a critically important piece of legislation in the event the state permits hydrofracking. Home rule, he said, "is a logical way to let each locality decide what is best for itself on where drilling should or should not take place."

Katherine Nadeau of the anti-fracking group Environmental Advocates was optimistic about the chances of Seward's home-rule bill winning legislative approval this year.

"This bill has a lot of juice (in the Republican-controlled Senate) because it goes back to what do people in the home districts want," she said.

On the other hand, bills calling for a moratorium on gas drilling are "a tough nut to crack," she admitted, citing the clout of Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, R-Broome County, a powerful ally of the gas industry.

John Holko, a board member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, dismissed the fracking foes' lobby blitz as a grab for publicity.

"They're always out for publicity because they haven't expressed any facts or information people can sink their teeth into," he said.

"Why can't all these people just sit back and let the experts (at DEC) do their job, and once it all comes out, we can work together for what's best for the state of New York?" Holko said. He said the gas industry has no plans to counter the drilling opponents at the Capitol.

"They don't want to talk," he said. "They just want to yell and rant."

Among the more than dozen sponsors of the statehouse rally is the Cooperstown-based group Otsego 2000. Headlining the list of speakers is actress Debra Winger.

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