Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Delaware County Plays David to Gotham City's Goliath — But Small Audience So Far

[Original post March 2, 2012.  Updated here March 7:  Responsive to some gentle nudging via Twitter, more detail on Delaware County's emerging role in Upstate Political Theater was laid out yesterday by Lissa Harris of the regional blog, Watershed Post.  Included was the now-established news that this resolution was, in fact, passed by the Delaware supervisors on Feb. 22, 12 towns to 4.  Harris also threw in some worthwhile, reality-checking calculations regarding Delaware's claimed portion of the disputed no-drill zones, a total of 786,000 acres, or 80 percent of the county's landmass, which breaks down like this:  in upstream watershed (lighter green on NYC's map) = 503,000 acres; out-of-watershed fringe buffer (darker green) = 33,000 acres; and newly proposed, downstream infrastructure buffers (pink and lavender) = 250,000 acres.  That makes Delaware's demand on behalf of its tax-paying, usually-law-abiding landowners a jaw-dropping $103,435-per-acre proposition, spread over 60 years — except, as Harris notes, a significant chunk of this land is already publicly owned, including by NYC.]

This resolution — a demand for $81.3 billion in drill-ban-related reparations from NYS/NYC — was recently either introduced or passed, virtually without media notice, by the Delaware County (NY) Board of Supervisors:
Resolution by Delaware County Board of Supervisors Seeking $81.3 Billion From NYS-NYC Over Catskills Waters...

Some background and some observations:  In order to feel secure in its continued enjoyment of lower-cost, federally waived, unfiltered domestic water from the Catskills Region of Upstate, New York City has already succeeded in using its political muscle to convince NYS DEC regulators to ban drilling for shale gas from on or under all lands uphill of its water reservoirs (lighter green on map below).  Worried also about the Mysteries of the Deep, this no-drill zone extends an additional 4,000 feet beyond the actual watershed divides (darker green on map below).  This fringe zone has already been additionally surrendered by state regulators, even though the much more likely case of occasional, drilling-related surface spills in these areas could not possibly have any impact whatsoever on NYC-bound water, due to the laws of gravity and landscape.
Though these blanket rulings are still technically only in proposed form — via the current draft SGEIS — NYS will not, politically, be able to retreat from any of this, at least not anytime soon.

The only trouble is this:  NYC hasn't purchased all, or even most, of this misleadingly green-shaded land — either outright in fee, or by easement against development.  It's true NYC owns rights to all the land that it long ago flooded, or built upon, to create its water system.  And it's true the city Water Department has made some additional purchases since.  But not much of what lies upstream.  In fact, former DEC Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis used to give speeches in which he pointedly noted that some 70 percent of this upstream land remains privately owned.

These same, pending, but-already-set-in-stone DEC drilling rules similarly limit property rights on private lands upstream of Syracuse's unfiltered supplies, drawn out of Skaneateles Lake.  But there has not yet, to my knowledge, been much protest from landowners or elected officials in the affected areas of Onondaga, Cortland, and Cayuga counties.  (Though I am a Syracuse water consumer and rate-payer — if I may make a suggestion, in the interest of true fairness — these folks should really be hopping on their dial-up connections, and dusting off their calculators, before it all becomes a Done Deal.)

In these drinking water watershed situations (On this phrasing, here's a reminder to Earth Science-impaired media representatives:  All land lays in a watershed), the state's drill/no-drill regulatory distinctions have been unsatisfactorily explained as being not so much about the realistic risk of surface spills, or the unrealistic risk of uncontrolled returns from depth, of spent or unspent frack water.  Instead, it's been explained as being more about the risk of much less spectacular sediment runoff from drillsite and access road construction.  Sediment!  Or, more to the point, it's really more about the regulatory risk that the federal EPA will view such surface disturbances as a reason to strip NYC and Syracuse of their money-saving filtration waivers — regardless of whether there's much actually foreseeable impact from drilling, and regardless of whether there are any public health benefits to be gained from filtering the water supplies already.

Now NYC wants even more land either off-limits to drilling, or under the thumb of its own case-by-case veto.  Recently, Big Apple leaders have pushed for adoption of additional infrastructural buffer zones running for up to seven-miles-wide alongside its aqueducts — an area which covers additional private lands on the downstream side of its reservoirs (pink surrounded by lavender in the map above).  In essence, NYC leaders have become so freaked out about the scenario of deep fracking somehow jostling or infiltrating their aging near-surface water pipes, they have managed to convince themselves, and their expert consultants, that there is actually a rational reason for this kind of preposterously simple-minded regulatory overkill.

Meanwhile — in PA, WV, OH, and beyond — fossil fuels producers are without incident routinely drilling (and afterwards fracking) thousands of mile-long horizontal laterals situate thousands of feet deep, directly underneath an oblivious array of gas pipelines, oil pipelines, water pipelines, streams, rivers, ponds, railroads, highways, homes, businesses, schools, and cemeteries.

Leaving aside the highly questionable risk-assessment validity of these ever-expanding no-drill takings, as put forth by NYC, a question of fairness remains:  Should the many urban, water-drinking, peaceful-of-mind beneficiaries of these regulatory "protections" compensate the many fewer private landowners for their lost economic opportunities? 

Or is it okay for the majority to economically oppress the minority, just because it's politically stronger?  Going all the way back to the days of King George, and to the drafting of the American Bill of Rights, isn't the system of free, private ownership of land intended to set limits upon this kind of oppression?  And should we be careful what we wish for, when we conspire in silence to excuse such blatant exceptions?

Delaware County's resolution says, in all fairness, reparations must be made — and this document is the latest salvo in an Upstate-Downstate dispute which long pre-dates the much younger Shale Gas Debates.

Media coverage has been so inattentive to this rural locale, we are not even able to say with certainty whether this resolution has already passed the whole body, or was merely introduced.  There has reportedly been coverage in at least one ironically pay-to-see Catskills outlet (Hancock Herald), a beforehand forecast in one very small organ (The Mountain Eagle), and a partially viewable story in another also ironically pay-walled operation (Catskill Mountain News).

But, as of the time of this writing, no widely circulated outlet statewide has yet set down this latest chapter.  How can this be?  How can this be — for a story that so well fits the well-established, afflict-the-comfortable, comfort-the-afflicted, media narrative?  It be, because most Northeastern media are only able to see news angles which run in familiar directions. 

Some little guys, they are simply blind to.  And I say that really stinks.

Note that the dollar figure Delaware supervisors arrived at for lost shale gas opportunities by private landowners and their surrounding economies — $81.3 billion, to be paid out over 60 years — is several times larger than even the most exaggerated, higher end of the estimated costs for NYC to simply filter its water, as virtually all other big cities already do.  (I've heard $14 billion, $9 billion, and $8 billion.)

Either way — and I realize this ain't gonna happen, given New Yorkers' White-Knuckled Commitment to the Politics of Fear — to me it's clear it would actually be in the state's net economic interest — and net public health interest — to simply do both:  Filter these water supplies, and drill safely for shale gas!


wadea william saad said..., should gear up to pay something for their water,like filtration system[average 12 billion dollars], it is better for the consumer, and they deserve it , or pay the land owners upstate in the cats kill watershed for the grand theft of their natural gas rights whic n.y. city politicians are engag ed in right now ,the upstate people are being abused as we speak now , their mineral rights are at stake so is the economic vitality of the southern tier ,more power to Delaware county board of supervisors in the reparation move.
free ride on autopilot is over.

Jack Reylan said...

In Manhattan, thanks to histrionic preservation, we have neighborly fecal matter back flowing making drinking water unpotable unless extensively purified and these idiot hypocrites complain about fracking? They should be made to pay for the ridiculous environmental mandates they impose on others by finally building their own Manhattan Bruce Gilchrist Chappaqua water purification system instead of keeping Westchester under environmental occupation so that they and not upstate has the right to police their drinking water. Think of all the green jobs building a New York filter? Why is that bad and all the solar panels good? What good are all the new engineering schools if they can’t purify the water.