The epic legal battle for the right of towns to ban oil and gas development within their borders took a dramatic step towards resolution today, as New York’s highest court heard oral arguments in Matter of Wallach, Trustee for Norse Energy v. Town of Dryden. The decision by the New York State Court of Appeals, expected sometime within the coming months, could uphold the rights of more than 170 New York towns that have passed bans or moratoria on fracking.
“What we have demonstrated in Dryden, is that the principle of home rule—the idea that the people who live in a town should have some say as to what happens in their community—can be used to fight back against the oil and gas industry,” said Helen Slottje, winner of the Goldman Prize for environmental advocacy, who became involved in Dryden’s battle against fracking in 2009. “Hundreds of communities are now using this principle in similar battles across the country.”
Last May, a mid-level state appeals court ruled in favor of Dryden and Middlefield, another town defending its zoning, upholding the towns’ rights to prohibit oil and gas development within their borders. Both cases were heard today by the New York State Court of Appeals, which has the final say. Dryden is represented in the case by the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice.
“All of the lower courts that have weighed in have agreed that Dryden and Middlefield have the right to limit the use of land for oil and gas development,” said Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice managing attorney. “We are hopeful that the New York State Court of Appeals will agree and finally settle this matter across New York State.”
Norse Energy (through its bankruptcy trustee) is seeking to overturn Dryden’s 2011 amendment to its zoning ordinance, clarifying that oil and gas development activities, including fracking, were prohibited within town borders. The measure passed the Town Board with a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
“It’s our job, as elected officials, to protect our community, our businesses, our families,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner. “I hope others across New York State and the country, will be inspired and enabled to do what’s right for their towns.”
“While the big oil and gas companies would have the public believe that they’re going to bring jobs to our community, the fact is that this type of development will actually threaten our existing jobs and hurt our local economy,” said Marie McRae, a local farmer and member of the Dryden Resource Awareness Committee. “The full extent of environmental and health impacts could be catastrophic for our community and local businesses.”
Dryden’s story began in 2009, after residents who were pressured by oil and gas company representatives to lease their land for gas development learned more about fracking. After two years of organizing and educating their peers about the risks to their community, Dryden residents petitioned the Town Board to ban fracking. After the vote in August 2011, billionaire-owned Anschutz Exploration Corporation sued Dryden to force the town to allow industrial gas drilling. In February 2012, a New York State trial court ruled in favor of Dryden. After Anschutz ceased its New York operations later that year, Norse Energy Corp. USA took over the case. Norse filed for bankruptcy in late 2012, and the bankruptcy trustee stepped in to press the appeal. In May 2013, a four-judge intermediate appellate court ruled unanimously in favor of the Town of Dryden, marking the town’s second court victory against the fossil fuel industry.
The ruling of the New York State Court of Appeals in Matter of Wallach, Trustee for Norse Energy v. Town of Dryden is expected later this summer.