By Tom Wilber

Editor’s Note: The question of whether Article IX of the New York State Constitution, the enumerated “Bill of rights for local government,” empowers locales to stop fracking is now before the state’s highest court. “New York is a home rule state” is a phrase you hear often if you spend time in the halls of Albany. And, like state’s rights on the federal level, the principle is an historical legal battleground in New York courts.

Tom Wilber, EarthDesk’s go-to fracking reporter, takes us inside the case that may assure local legislatures can have first, or final, say on fracking in New York. This post also appears in Tom’s excellent blog Shale Gas Review. More on Tom at the end of the post. — John Cronin

Jurisdictional rights of local governments – an issue known as Home Rule — will have monumental influence on where and if shale gas wells will be drilled in New York. The outcome of that story now hinges on the final act of a battle that began in 2011 after the towns of Dryden and Middlefield passed laws that prohibited gas drilling and the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, deemed incompatible with land use plans.

Old but powerful.

The decision last week by New York’s high court to hear a case challenging local bans on fracking is a clear and understandable victory for the industry.  It is also something of a plot twist after bans in both Middlefield and Dryden were unanimously upheld in separate trial courts, and then again in the state’s appellate division. Tom West, who represents industry, knew a chance to breathe new life into his case challenging the town bans in the state’s high court was, in his words, “a long shot.” In 2012, the Court of Appeals heard just 64 cases out of nearly 1,000 requests for permission to appeal, or 6.4 percent. But because of the importance of the case, he filed an appeal anyway. The court announced on August 29th that it would hear the case.

With this in mind, you might expect that those who see Home Rule as a tool to discourage fracking in New York would be disappointed, maybe even crushed, by the possibility that clear-cut victories in lower courts could now be overturned in the Court of Appeals. But you would be wrong, at least if your source of information is Helen Slottje. Slottje is a principal attorney who represents the municipalities. It’s a role that positions her as an adversary to West in a case that brings a new level of visibility to both of their veteran careers. The Court of Appeals’ decision to hear the case gives the industry another chance. But, Slottje points out, it also gives Home Rule advocates a chance to remove any ambiguity that may have remained with lower court rulings. Without a definitive ruling from the high court, the door would remain open for other challenges and legal tacks in other districts.

“Lawyers might be interested in this dragging on. But it gets expensive and it’s a long process,” Slottje said. “There’s no quicker or easier way than having the course go to the Court of Appeals.”

On this point, West and Slottje have no differences.  “That’s a rare moment of agreement between us,” West said. “This will be definitive. However the Court of Appeals rules, that’s it. ”

Slottje and a colleague, attorney Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice, have publically debated the case with West on various radio shows and at law clinics over the last year. I have participated in more than one of these events as a facilitator, and I’m now in the fortunate position of being invited to participate as a moderator in an upcoming clinic at the Albany Law School that will feature various legal points of reference on the future of drilling in New York State. The morning program promises a look at legal factors that will influence shale gas development, ranging from health impacts to property rights, with the afternoon session featuring the ground breaking Home Rule case as it advances to an even bigger stage. (I will moderate a panel in the morning program, and Capitol Pressroom host Susan Arbetter will moderate a debate between Goldberg and West in the afternoon session.)

The question at the core of the Home Rule case — Norse Energy Corporation vs Town of Dryden et al. — is whether the state’s Oil Gas and Solutions Mining law supersedes local laws when it comes to “regulation” of oil and gas operations. Lower courts have ruled in favor of the towns’ argument – based on precedent in similar cases involving jurisdiction over sand and gravel mines — that banning something is different than regulating it. In other words, a local government can have a say of where and if gas wells are sited based on local land use plans, but not how they operate.

More than an abstract academic discussion, the outcome will influence the local landscapes for future generations. More than 150 municipalities have passed a ban or moratorium on gas drilling or fracking, according to FracTracker. It’s an area where the issues of fracking – with all its national and global ramifications – is brought tangibly down to the town board level. Whenever people – for or against fracking — can see such a direct return on their civic engagement, it produces the kind of stories – stories with impact — that journalistic sensibilities relish.

Both Slottje and West are cautious about reading much about the odds of winning or losing into the court’s decision to hear the case. There is no pattern in former rulings that suggests the Court of Appeals’ willingness to hear a given case predisposes it to overturning the decision of lower courts, with the record showing it upholds decisions with the approximate frequency that it overturns them.

“I think you can only read into this that it’s important for the court to clarify this,” West said.

The matter will be decided by the seven Court of Appeals judges, appointed by the governor to 14-year terms. (See their bios here.) The ruling is expected to come in the middle of next year, but the work has already begun. The schedule is yet to be announced, but if the case follows normal course of events, the petitioners, Norse Energy and Cooperstown Holstein Corp. (represented by West) have 10 days from the Aug. 29 announcement to file a preliminary statement of appeal, and 60 days after that to file briefs. Briefs from the towns of Dryden and Middlefield (represented by Slottje and Goldberg) are due 45 days after the industry’s briefs are filed. That means all the paperwork would have to be filed by the end of the year. Oral arguments would typically come five months later, or in May. Decisions are typically issued 40 days after oral arguments, which would be July.

The case could drag out longer, but that is unlikely, attorneys noted. The Court of Appeals, unlike other branches of government, has a reputation for sticking to schedules. There are other legal issues yet to be tested in courts, including the state’s (still undecided) administrative approach to regulate, permit, or ban shale gas wells while balancing public health and environmental concerns. By this time next year, however, the home rule case will be settled, even though fracking will undoubtedly remain a contentious political issue, with pending legislative and gubernatorial elections and an open door for legislative intervention.

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Tom Wilber’s Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell University Press) was recently selected as a finalist in the 2013 New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. His career as a journalist encompasses more than 20 years in the newspaper business, including 17 years with the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, covering business, health, and environment beats. He has reported on shale gas development in New York and Pennsylvania since 2008.

Tom was among the first reporters to provide daily coverage of events in Dimock Pennsylvania, which have since become iconic of the national controversy over fracking. For that, he won top honors in Best of Gannett beat reporting in 2010. He left the newspaper in 2010 to write full time about shale gas development. He now tracks current events related to shale as development in his blog, Shale Gas Review. He has taught various journalism courses as an adjunct at Binghamton University.