Big Fracking Victory: New York's Top Court Rules That Towns Have the Right to Ban Natural Gas Drilling

Energy companies hint they may not bother fracking with New York after the ruling.

Photo Credit: A Katz/Shutterstock

New York's highest court ruled today that municipalities can ban hydrofracking operations within their territorial boundaries. The state's Court of Appeals said the towns of Dryden and Middlefield can write zoning laws to ban specific heavy industries, including oil and gas production. 

“Today the Court stood with the people of Dryden and the people of New York to protect their right to self determination. It is clear that people, not corporations, have the right to decide how their community develops,” said Deputy Supervisor Jason Leifer of Dryden, which is located in New York's Upstate Finger Lakes region.

“Today’s ruling shows all of America that a committed group of citizens and public officials can stand together against fearful odds and successfully defend their homes, their way of life and the environment against those who would harm them all in the name of profit,” added Leifer. 


The ruling by the court, which passed 5-2, cemented the power of a principle known as known as municipal home rule, which grants villages and towns in the state the right to manage their own affairs and restricts state legislation from intruding into local governance. In the case of Dryden and Middlefield, the towns sought to keep away industries that they decided posed a threat to their local resources. 

While this may seem only to be a small victory, environmentalists are calling this "huge."

“This sends a message to all the oil and gas drillers anxiously eyeing our borders: The people of New York will not be steamrolled,” Kate Sinding, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Many of the 170 anti-fracking measures made by New York municipalities have been in limbo while the case was being decided. Today’s decision will allow for many of those decisions to take effect. Environmental groups are also hoping that municipalities in other states, such as Colorado, Pennsylvania, and California, will look at this ruling and write their own ordinances that restrict industrial gas and oil drilling. 

State residents and environmentalists are now waiting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make a decision on whether the state should lift a temporary moratorium on fracking that was put in place in 2008 by the previous Governor, David Paterson. Gov. Cuomo has said that he's waiting for the State Health Department to issue a report on hydrofracking's potential health effects. 

Cuomo's decision may become moot as energy companies threw up their hands in disgust at the ruling, hinting they may not be inclined to do business in the state.

Thomas S. West, a lawyer for one of the energy companies, Norse Energy Corporation USA, said he was disappointed by the ruling, which he said made it increasingly unlikely that gas drilling companies would invest in New York State.

“Industry has already fled the state because of the six-year moratorium,” Mr. West said.

In the future, he said, companies will have to weigh whether to invest “the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars required to develop the resource, only to be at risk of a municipal ban.”

The New York Times is reporting that Norse Energy has already filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. 

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.