Fracking, Local Control, and the State Moratorium: NY's Complex Policy Landscape

By all accounts, New York State’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will remain indefinitely, or at least until this year’s gubernatorial race has concluded. But many other states in the thick of the fracking boom are attempting to address a host of important and controversial aspects of public policy, much of it directly or indirectly related to concerns for water quality.

As do many states, New York allows for “home rule,” in which communities are allowed to exercise regulatory control locally. Many New York municipalities are passing local laws that pre-emptively ban or endorse (publically encourage) fracking as a way to take local control, should it be legalized statewide.

We are in the midst of beginning several important research tasks. The first involves work being done by myself, economics professor Bebonchu Atems, and Environmental Politics and Governance Master’s student, Ross Miller. In fall of 2013, Ross traveled to four municipalities in the Southern Tier of New York, and area of the state where fracking is most likely to happen. He conducted interviews and surveys with stakeholders to examine the process of local coproduction. Policy researchers use this term to describe the creation of environmental policy with deep involvement of local citizens (along with experts and government). This is done in order to build a broader consensus around environmental policy decisions. We focus on the specific challenges that rural, municipal governments have when it comes to crafting environmental policy through this collaborative effort.

Politics has very little influence in the municipalities we studied.

Our initial research has turned up some surprising findings that we recently presented at a Conversations in the Disciplines Conference on fracking at SUNY Binghamton. First, fracking is often characterized as a political cleavage between Democrats and Republicans and their relationship to environmental regulation. It turns out that politics has very little influence in our four municipalities. All four turn out to have Republican majorities between 61 and 69%, yet two endorsed, and two banned the activity. Unsurprisingly, income levels do matter. Our two communities that banned fracking have a significantly higher per capita income than the two communities that endorsed.

Our two ban communities have less confidence in the ability of their local government to effectively oversee local fracking activities should they occur. They also believe that incorporating involvement by independent experts is critical for effective oversight of fracking. This is the despite the fact that these municipalities are wealthier, and have a higher tax base to finance local government activities and oversight (and thus should presumably have more effective local government). Our pro-fracking communities also believe that they have greater citizen activity and ease of involvement in their government than the ban communities.

This work is preliminary, and a lot more needs to be done to understand the ways in which local communities can, and are, overseeing fracking activity. Future work that I am doing with Professor Martin Heintzelman (Clarkson environmental economist) and Dr. Patrick Walsh (EPA) focuses on the characteristics of banning and fracking communities across all of New York State and should tell us more about how local municipalities plan to address fracking and water quality in their areas, and what other factors affect those decisions. We’ll talk about this work in a future post.