Farmers in southern New York lament lost opportunity for gas riches after fracking ban

Energy Associated Press

While environmental groups are doing a victory dance over New York's decision to ban fracking, farmers such as apple grower David Johnson are grieving for dashed hopes and dreams.

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"I'm devastated," Johnson said after Gov. Andrew Cuomo's health and environmental commissioners announced Wednesday that they were recommending a fracking ban. "I have concerns about how to continue this farm that's been in the family for 150 years."

Energy companies denied the chance to drill in New York can simply raise their rigs in other states. That's what they've done since the Marcellus Shale gas drilling boom began in 2008 and New York launched an environmental review that effectively put a moratorium in place. But landowners in the state's Southern Tier region who had hoped to reap royalties from gas production don't have that option.

"Frankly, my heart breaks for all those families in the Southern Tier who were denied the opportunity to develop their mineral resources," said Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York branch of the American Petroleum Institute.

New Yorkers have watched other states that sit atop the Marcellus Shale - Ohio, West Virginia and neighboring Pennsylvania - ride the fracking boom and reap profits from one of the world's largest natural gas deposits. Some New York landowners signed lucrative leases with energy companies and received multi-million-dollar signing bonuses before the natural gas market and the state's regulatory climate soured. But many landowner coalitions never got the chance to sell their leases.

That's fine with landowners who don't want drilling on their land or their neighbors'. Their ranks include many organic farmers, vineyard owners, tourist business operators and town residents who agree with environmental groups that the health risks and changes to the rural landscape outweigh the financial benefits.

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Johnson, who runs a 30-acre pick-your-own apple farm on his mostly wooded 400 acres in Binghamton, said drilling money would help keep struggling farms in business and create new jobs for the next generation.

"We're just falling apart in the Southern Tier," Johnson said. "I make a living from people coming to my farm. But we're losing population. The people who are left have less money to spend. Every year my business decreases. We try new things, I raise prices, but the trend continues no different from any other industry in the Southern Tier."

Johnson said he'd be more accepting of the Cuomo administration's decision if Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had presented some clear scientific basis for a ban. Instead, Martens based part of his decision on the low price of gas and the fact that 63 percent of New York's share of the Marcellus region was off-limits to drilling because of local bans and prohibitions intended to protect water supplies and other features. Zucker emphasized the need for long-term studies to rule out adverse health impacts.

"It was economic and emotional, not technical," Johnson said. "We're good ol' boys down here, just tell it to us straight. This political wishy-washiness is going to put us out of business."

Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, was also critical of the health study findings. "Is our health department ignoring impacts of other energy options and suggesting that we continue with our reliance on coal and nuclear energy? Did our health department consider the health effects of poverty and unemployment?"

Other farmers are resigned to the state's decision.

Judi Whittaker, who has a 550-cow dairy in Whitney Point, had hoped to use gas-lease money to pay property taxes.

"If we had been able to get some gas drilling going it would have made our lives a little easier and taken a few of the stresses away," Whittaker said. "We'll just have to rethink what we're doing and move ahead. Agriculture has ups and downs all the time. You just have to go along for the ride."