Thursday, December 19, 2013

Team Cuomo Set to Decide Fate of
Cayuga Lake Coal Plant — Sunset or Switch?

Coal Pile at AES Cayuga by ddbrown4
Coal Pile at AES Cayuga, a photo by ddbrown4 on Flickr (embedded by permission).
[Revised late in the day, Dec. 19, to accommodate the latest news:  Cayuga Operating and NYSEG have asked the NYS PSC for permission to again delay the next version of their Lansing Plant re-powering analysis, this time from Dec. 23, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2014.]

This past Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo moved decisively to score some rare points with ordinary people in Western New York, taking credit for saving the coal-fired electricity plant at Dunkirk, by greasing the bureaucratic wheels to re-power it with cleaner and cheaper natural gas.

Out that way, most power consumers, skilled workers, taxpayers, and local government people really liked the plan.  Media reports indicate the governor was honored in person with cheerleaders, a band, and banners of gratitude.

New York environmentalists didn't like the plan.  In fact, this group was faced with a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime choice between doing away with the old, proven horrors of acid rain (and many other kinds of air pollution) from coal, and coming to terms instead with the new, unproven horrors of fracking from the production of natural gas.  They advocated instead for a Plan C — alternative ideas, some involving renewables, and some involving adjustments to the overhead power line grid.

But they lost.

(And they never even offered to stick around to stand tall against the people who might later be upset by bigger bills, higher taxes, more overhead power lines, more windmills, or maybe another hydropower dam or two — ahhh, the life of an activist.)

Here's my question, though:  What is Cuomo going to do about the very similar coal-burner in Lansing, NY, which has been sitting mostly idle after a bankruptcy, due to the lost economics of coal (caused, actually, by the technological advent of fracking)? 

The plant sits
just a few miles down the east shore of Cayuga Lake from Ithaca, the state's epicenter of anti-fracking activism.  In fact, the Lansing plant's been there, gobbling up miles of coal delivered by freight train, right in plain sight along the lakeshore, since the Mad Men mentality ruled during 1955, when it first came online.  Most locals still reference its original Milliken Station name.  But the plant is now suffering, and now ranks as holier-than-thou Ithaca's inconvenient, dirty little fossil fuels secret.

Kill it, or convert it, or do something completely different, it's the same question as at Dunkirk.

The main thing that's different about Lansing would seem to be the cultural setting — high above Cayuga's waters, wine tourists, Birkenstocks, Volvo's, and a resident population that's accustomed to regular bouts of protest, practically as an obsessive hobby.

So if it's good for the goose to switch Dunkirk over to natural gas, then what does the governor want to do about that gander in Lansing?  The ultimate plan for Lansing could very well be coming up very soon, and here's why:

After repeated extensions, the state Public Service Commission had given plant owner Cayuga Operating Company LLC and power transmitter New York State Electric & Gas Corporation until Dec. 23, 2013 to file their second- or third-draft re-powering proposals.  And, supposedly, the PSC could make a choice, as early as Dec. 28.

However, as noted above,
both Cayuga Operating and NYSEG on Dec. 19 asked the PSC for another filing extension, this time well past the holidays to Feb. 28, 2014.  The environmental groups have already said they're against putting things off further (say what?), but what the PSC will do, we just don't know yet.

So far, Cayuga Operating and NYSEG have actually been split on the Lansing plant's future.  The owner, of course, wants to find a way to stay in business by switching.  The power transmitter suggests instead that a permanent shutdown could be coped with, mostly by re-wiring the grid around the production void that's left behind.  It's going to cost the ratepayers more money, either way.  By sending the power companies back to take another crack at it, the PSC appears to be asking for something in the middle.

In the end, it will be up to the technical staffers and political appointees with the PSC — and up the chain of command to the political specialists with the governor's office — to make a decision.

The biggest questions for Cuomo are undoubtedly not cents per kilowatt hour, or how many towers it'll take to rig up new or improved power lines, or what happens when we get Hurricane Sandy, The Sequel.  Instead, the biggest questions for Cuomo are these:  If I actually make the trip out there, and splash out a re-powering announcement, like I did in Dunkirk…  Will there be cheerleaders?  Will there be a band?  Will far-left local Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton agree to hold up a sign that actually thanks me, for once?

Unfortunately, it doesn't look likely.  As you might imagine, the Greater Lansing community has also been split, in fact much more severely than the ordinary people out in Dunkirk. 

On the public sector economic side — people who pay taxes, or collect taxes, especially school taxes, don't even get me started on school taxes — these people have been reeling through a collective bout of sticker shock, taking notice of the forecast without the Lansing plant still alive to help carry that weight.  And, on the private sector economic side, it turns out there are actually still a few skilled people in the Ithaca area who work for a living on things other than servicing tourists, holding down a job at one of the colleges, or fighting the power from inside a not-for-profit.

But then there's also the "grassroots."

A now-curious motto on letterhead for Tompkins County's Town of Lansing.
Like its Tompkins County neighbors, Lansing is the sort of town which has already passed and then extended an activist-sponsored one-year moratorium on shale gas development, calling it "heavy industry" — while at the same time working overtime to keep open the state's biggest rock salt mine, extending right under Cayuga Lake, and while at the same time acting as well-compensated host to this mammoth coal plant, now possibly in line to start burning natural gas fracked through a process of "devastation" out of Pennsylvania.

No "heavy industry," that is, except for the real heavy industries they're already familiar with.

The re-powering choice should really be tied up in ethical knots over New York's gross hypocrisy over shale gas.  That's because, to re-power Dunkirk or Lansing with natural gas, Cuomo must call upon a North American supply, about 40 percent of which is at last count now produced using high-volume hydraulic fracturing in horizontally drilled shales.  But none of that methane has yet to come out of the ground, in that technological way, from within New York's state lines — not a single molecule.  That's because Cuomo has yet to work up the political nerve to simply declare New York as finally "Open For (That Kind Of) Business," even in a closely regulated way.

Instead, Cuomo has so far been taking the anti's NIMBY oath on natural gas — a "Yes, please" to the consumer-level benefits, but an "I'll get back to you" to coping with any of the real or perceived production impacts.

And these same activists have been pitching the mantra in Lansing that less power would be somehow more.

Will Cuomo buy into that, too?

If you've got a lot of free time, and some spare bandwidth, the PSC has a whole electronic filing cabinet about this case that's getting regularly updated online here.

Close readers will notice that the usual Ithaca-based Park Foundation grantees from New York's ongoing frack fight are also on the case, presumably spending some of their fully reported money as state-registered lobbyists:  Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Citizens Campaign, Environmental Advocates, Community Environmental Defense Council, etc.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Millennium Pipeline Trims North-South Plan
Now Thinks It'll Just Stop in Cortland

   Proposed Millennium Phase 1 Pipeline: North-South Pipeline Connector by Andy Leahy

This south-to-north natural gas pipeline interconnect
into the Syracuse area was a trial balloon originally floated May 9, 2013 by the private sector consortium known as Millennium, which includes National Grid. 

The pipeline people went through a process, peculiar to the industry, of polling natural gas shippers to see if they might have enough future product to warrant building it.  But, it turns out, there's not enough market interest right now to justify building all of it.

Though both the old and now-modified proposals have always offered the hope of more private sector expenditure, utility infrastructure, and tax base, mainstream media in upstate New York didn't take much immediate notice of the original announcement.  Instead, part-time electronic shale gas news specialists, such as NY Shale Gas Now and Marcellus Drilling News broadcast the news, virtually right from Day One.

Mainstream reporters did their part by simply waiting for the opposition to form, which it inevitably did.  Then, in their judgment, it was news.  For some reason, that's how we do things in New York.

Over the last six months, Millennium has said nothing further publicly, but now we have an update this morning, Dec. 18, from Tim Knauss of the Syracuse Post-Standard, who must have actually picked up the phone and convinced a spokesman to say something:  The original idea has at some unknown point in time been reduced in length, and now Millennium's thinking of just stopping in Cortland (though even that possibility is still "under review").

In the intervening six months, the most interesting thing about this tentative proposal — at least to me — is how much time, expense, and effort NIMBY and anti-shale gas activists have put into shooting it down, before it's even really underway. 

Since there's still a possible plan afoot to put in a natural gas pipeline between at least the Millennium's main west-east line in the Southern Tier, and the southwest-northeast Dominion linkage accessible near "downtown" Blodgett's Mills, south of Cortland, I expect the anti-development effort will undoubtedly go on.  But it's likely that the key part of the opposition's Sixties demographic base living in southern Onondaga County or northern Cortland County will now be somewhat less energized, and some will move on to worry about something else.  To keep the protest alive, organizers are going to have to try and get a reaction out of people in somewhat less anti-everything rural Broome County and southern Cortland County, areas that I'm pretty familiar with, as a native of Whitney Point in northern Broome. 

(To that, I say — "Show me the tax roll!"  Or, "Where do I sign to get off fuel oil?"  Or, "What are they paying per foot?"  Or, "
How soon are they hiring?")

But let's just take a quick look at all that opponents have already done, in just six months, in opposition to something that no one could really be sure would even move forward:

The opposition named itself Stop the I-81 Pipeline and put up a Wordpress blog.

And also a Facebook page.

They had lots of local "educational" meetings, and got their fight onto the Syracuse cable TV news.

Also, Binghamton AM radio.

Of course, they got glowing, heartfelt "our people" coverage on public radio's America's Natural Gas Alliance-sponsored "Innovation Trail" (which tends to run a lot of spin in opposition to certain innovations), sometimes out of Syracuse, and sometimes out of Binghamton — once, twice, three times, maybe more.

They put up at least one You Tube video.

And they got themselves inserted into numerous, pre-existing, anti-frack web sites, such as GDACC, Shaleshock, Marcellus Protest, Bill Huston, and many others.  (Sorry, but I can't bring myself to link to all that shit.)

Does this seem to anyone like overkill, or what?

Of course, Millennium is saying that none of this early-bird protest factored into its decision to shorten the plan, while Syracuse-area activists are tweeting congratulations of the latest news as a major victory.  Whether it really mattered or not is hard to say, but — judging from the similar, FERC-proposed Constitution Pipeline, which also faces full-time opposition, but is still on track — I doubt it mattered much, compared to the economics.

To me, though, all this bodes unwell for anything ranking as traditional "progress" in upstate New York.  No one organizes to support projects (or to find ways to maximize the public benefit, or to minimize the impacts).  Instead, plenty of folks are ready to invest much of their free time into railing against them, even if they just wind up wounding their neighbors by doing so.  Media outlets don't cover the proposals; they just cover the conflicts.

You add all that grief to the long-complained-of tax and regulatory climate, and it's really no wonder.  Really, they should just put up signs along the highway entry points of fuel-oil-burning towns like Castle Creek, Whitney Point, Lisle, Killawog, or Marathon...

Population:  Fewer and Fewer Every Day

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Also Now Overdue:
New York's Updated Energy Plan

Anybody else wonder what's going on here?

An expert inter-agency panel of energy specialists in New York has been meeting fairly regularly since Sept. 2009 in order to update the state's Energy Plan,
as directed by the legislative and executive branches.

The whole process is as dully transparent as things get in New York, on a seldom-visited web site here.

Energy planners went through a similar exercise previously in 2009, and in 2002.  But — to keep on top of the inexorable changes — the wheels were set in motion four years back to get the plan updated by 2013.  The 2013 draft was said to be due in Fall 2013, and the final by Spring 2014.

Judging by the astronomical calendar, I suppose that means they've got a few days left.  Judging by the foot of snow I just shoveled, their time is already up.

But the draft plan is still nowhere to be found on their web site.

Does that kind of delay rank as news in New York, or is it just another sleeping pill?

New York's energy planning delay thematically syncs up with the state's dysfunctional gridlock over the very much related, now-five-plus-years-old fracking question:  Can this state can ever find a regulated way to let its landowners (or resident workers, such as myself) seek a small piece of the supply side in the burgeoning shale gas business — without falling to pieces over any of the real (or over-hyped) environmental impacts?

[Another digression, because I just can't help myself:  It's worth noting that dysfunctional gridlock has a very long history in New York; it's one of our primary sources of amusement.  The most interesting, most recent, case study of this Empire State Illness is the Full Century that was required before state officials figured out a way to sort out a seemingly minor land-title ruckus that had long festered with a couple hundred Adirondack camp owners in the Raquette Lake area.  That one's gotta be a record.  Voters just finally fixed it by a quit-claim-for-land-purchase-money swap, as posed by a ballot proposition in Nov. 2013.  (Like nobody could have figured out something similar back in 1899!)  In both cases — shale gas and Adirondack issues — the eternal gridlock is not just sourced directly to intractable political conflict; it's sourced much more directly to the legal barricades that Conflict Warriors have erected, over many prior years, to give them forts to fight from in the future.  For shale gas, the legal barricade is known as SEQRA, which started merely as a rationalistic project planning requirement to analyze and mitigate against environmental impacts, but has evolved to become a way for opponents to politically kill projects.  That's what the whole tortured shale gas SGEIS process flows from.  For the Adirondacks, the legal barricade was long ago cast in stone in the hallowed "Forever Wild" provision of the State Constitution — thou shalt not cut any state-owned trees, or convey any state-owned land, inside The Blue Line.  But "Forever Wild" has evolved to mean that you need the state equivalent of an Act of Congress, just to put to rest a land-title glitch which originated with clerical errors from, like, the mid-to-late 1800s.  Few in New York seem to think this may have, at some point, gotten out of hand; we're pretty acclimated.]

But back to New York's energy planning, where it's worth noting that the technological innovation of shale gas is, without question, the primary change in energy markets to have materialized (or much more clearly materialized) since planners last put out a plan in 2009.

Close, cynical readers such as myself are very much interested in knowing how these 2013 planners are going to grapple with the internal conundrum of having to choose a path forward on shale gas.  They could continue to advocate for a regulated harvest of the state's indigenous shale gas resource, as they did before.  Or else they could run with the inescapable alternative:  Openly advocate Not In My Backyard as a matter of official state energy policy.

NIMBY is exactly where New York is already headed:  We're burning more and more natural gas.  In fact, the governor just announced over this past weekend that he's making the necessary arrangements to get the private sector to convert a shuttered Buffalo-area electricity plant to burn natural gas instead of coal.  But, to get it done, New York must draw on a U.S. supply that was most recently touted as now about
40% credited to hydraulic fracturing in tight rocks, all occurring out of state, or out of country.

Certain places in New York happen to sit a mile or so above the right kind of bedrock, but the right kind of drilling and fracking has never been allowed to occur in New York.  We'd rather just pay the money to import the stuff fracked out of Pennsylvania for heat and power (and for peace of mind for some), here in New York.

Energy planners, the last time around, back in 2009, can be seen in hindsight to have been surprisingly gung-ho and confident in recommending the state "encourage development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation with environmental safeguards that are protective of water supplies and natural resources."

Not that any of those words have mattered so far, but — just out of morbid, historical curiosity — here's more of what the energy planners had to say, back in the day, in planning for the rise of shale gas:

In-State Potential and Development Progress

With the emerging recognition of the Marcellus Shale natural gas potential, there is a renewed interest in natural gas development in-state.  At this time, in-state natural gas production from about 6,700 active natural gas wells supplies about five percent of the State’s requirements. The Marcellus Shale gas formation extends northeast from West Virginia, through Pennsylvania to southwestern New York, and holds great promise for future development.

The Marcellus Shale's total gas in place is conservatively estimated to be approximately 168 trillion cubic feet, but the figure might be as high as 516 trillion cubic feet.  New York's portion of total recoverable gas remains unknown; however, the State’s natural gas production is expected to increase significantly over the forecast period due largely to the projected production from the Marcellus Shale formation.  The State’s natural gas production is expected to more than double from 55 billion cubic feet in 2007 to about 146 billion cubic feet, representing about 11 percent of the State’s natural gas requirements by 2020. 

Although the addition of Marcellus Shale production is expected to result in a significant increase in New York production over the planning period, the natural gas model reflects a conservative Marcellus Shale natural gas production level to account for potential permitting and production difficulties related to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  If these difficulties are minimized, Marcellus production levels could potentially be much higher. This resource presents an opportunity for the State to unlock substantial economic value while helping to achieve several of the Energy Plan’s key energy policy objectives. 

Further, New York-based natural gas extraction would create jobs, create wealth for upstate landowners, and increase State revenue from taxes and leases and royalties. Development of State-owned lands could provide much needed revenue relief to the State and spur economic development and job creation in economically depressed regions of the State.

In pursing this economic development opportunity, however, the State should first examine the development of mineral rights only for properties owned by the State which are located outside the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves and State parklands under the jurisdiction of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

For development of the Marcellus Shale, horizontal well completions combined with hydraulic fracturing are likely to provide the best means for producing economic volumes of natural gas.  While neither horizontal drilling nor hydraulic fracturing is new to natural gas development in New York, there are environmental concerns with respect to the effects of fracturing on water supplies, and disposal and contamination issues related to the chemical composition of the fluids used in the fracturing process. 

Additional concerns regarding drilling in the Marcellus Shale focus on the potential local impacts to communities, including increased truck traffic, noise, aesthetics, and impact on quality of life. DEC regulations govern the well permitting, drilling operations, and well site restoration when drilling is completed. To assess the potential environmental concerns related to the development of the Marcellus Shale formation in New York, DEC is reviewing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the context of a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS).  A draft SGEIS was released by DEC in September 2009 that proposes a number of safety measures, protection standards, and permits for drilling activities.101 The public comment period on the draft SGEIS is open through December 31, 2009.


Support private interest and investment in drilling in the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves and natural gas pipeline expansions to improve supply and deliverability of natural gas to markets in New York in an environmentally acceptable manner.

Establish final DEC regulatory requirements for drilling and pipeline construction.

Coordinate regulatory requirements for drilling and pipeline expansions.

Study private investment in extracting natural gas in the Marcellus Shale on State-owned lands outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves and State parklands under the jurisdiction of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Shameless Sunday:
Frackophobic Gov. Cuomo to Convert WNY Coal Plant to Natgas — Fracked Out of State

This is a real New York doozy here.

But I guess only my ears are burning, not Cuomo's.  He's probably settling in for some afternoon football.

My take on this is that it's a win-win-win-win for everybody in Western New York — people who breathe air, power consumers, taxpayers, local governments, skilled workers, you name it.

Everybody, that is, except for the alternatives crowd which fought against it, but lost.

And everybody, that is, except for the New York landowners — and natural gas field specialists, such as myself — who have been clamoring for more than five years now to get in on the supply chain, but are still losing.

I'm still waiting for a sign to appear outside Cuomo's next $1000-per-plate political fundraiser:

Dude — Buy Local!

Fact-Check: Follow (Some of) the Money
As it Lobbies NYS on Shale Gas

[Original post Dec. 13, 2013, then I made a number of fixes through Dec. 15.]

I started down the wayward path of this kind of fact-checking because of an incredibly sloppy article appearing on Politico's new Capital New York outlet Dec. 6, 2013.

There they reported that just two anti-fracking green groups spent only $43,094 on lobbying in New York during the first half of 2013.  That paltry figure was set against the mammoth, $667,159 spent on lobbying during the same period by four different arms of industry (three definitely pro-fracking organizations, and the fourth just a power seller that got unfairly thrown into the mosh pit, for some reason). 

This was done by the reporter in order to "prove" the headline:  "Fracking industry out-lobbies opponents, still loses ground."

But —
if you actually check, as I did — pressure groups with anti-fracking positions spent $352,569
during just the first half of 2013 — pushing elected, appointed, and professional-class officials at many layers of government in New York. 

At least, that's according to the tallies of those organizations which actually complied with state-mandated disclosure reports on lobbying, as maintained by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, commonly referenced by Albany insiders as JCOPE.

But before we get too far into this, let me just ask a question here — is there any fundamental, underlying unreliability to this kind of back-of-the-envelope, journalistic math?

Yes, lots, actually.


Right off the bat, the first problem with math performed by journalists is that most young, drama-inculcated reporters — working on deadline, writing two or three news stories a day — don't have the time, inclination, or social/professional rewards to even do a proper job of polling JCOPE's data.

As I said, by my assessment, ten different presumably anti-drilling green groups reported spending
$352,569 — not two organizations, spending $43,094, an instance where the reporter can be shown to have referenced only about 12% of what's fully transparent and accessible of record.

On the mostly-but-probably-not-all, pro-drilling industry side, 18 different companies or trade associations reported spending $1,721,739 — not four entities, spending $667,159, a case where the reporter (even with an error of over-reach) managed to capture just about 39% of what's on the open record.

Also missed — from the known-to-be pro-drilling landowner perspective — two organizations spent $168,723.
  These groups represent the often-ignored resource owners, legitimate stakeholders who take the position of pleading to re-legalize opportunity regarding what turns out to be their valuable shale gas.

Also missed —
from the presumably pro-drilling trade union outlook — two labor unions spent $196,701.  These groups represent the even-more-often ignored skilled tradespeople, also legitimate stakeholders who are pushing for more work.

What if you extrapolate the total total across the whole of 2013, on the basis of records which so far show expenditures in just first half of the year?  That would suggest that pressure groups — each with at least some kind of position one way or another on the fracking question — are on track to spend nearly $5 million in on-the-record lobbying in New York.  What they all spent lobbying in prior years — since at least 2008, when the whole fracking question exploded to become such a big issue in New York — could also be examined.  But I'll have to look into that, some time later.


Next, note that my analysis leaves out groups that refrained from using — in their free-form description of lobbying topics — such explicit key words or phrases as, say, hydraulic, frack, moratorium, oil and gas, natural gas, shale, drilling, SGEIS, or HVHF.  Or another way of saying this is that my analysis leaves out groups that described their interests much more vaguely.

Right away, for instance, I can already see that the Business Council of New York — which has routinely taken a decidedly pro-fracking stand on its well-worth-it Capital Business Blog — escapes my round-up.  That's because they spent $230,757 during the first half of 2013, working on topics they chose to describe as:


Also escaping notice is the Environmental Defense Fund, which — though you sure don't hear much about this, at least within the echoey confines of New York State — actually comes down on the pro side of regulated shale gas development as a national platform.  EDF has two reporting lines for the first half of 2013, spending $191,979, but it was on "ENVIRONMENTAL AND TRANSPORTATION ISSUES."  I guess they're thinking that ought to cover it.

NYPIRG's another one.  They were there on fracking in prior years, but must be they stopped lobbying this year, if the database can be trusted for their absence.

How many others — pro, con, or somewhere in between — are missing or disguise their pressure on the fracking question by hiding behind similar veils of vagueness, that's anybody's guess.  You wanna take a crack at it, as I said, the data's all online here.

Furthermore, one can even raise questions about those that I have included:  Is everybody in "industry" pro-fracking?  In this grouping, for instance, my list lumps in GE, waste haulers, Hudson Valley real estate people, and the small-spending Ecology & Environment (a consultant that does business with whomever's hiring, having even done some work for the NYS DEC on the SGEIS, and the federal EPA on its ongoing shale gas study).  For each of these, their official interest in fracking is likely to be a lot more nuanced than just pro or con.


Even more crucially, journalistic math also glosses over the fact that each pressure group reports all lobbying on all their issues of interest.  There's no line item for fracking, and this is fundamentally an equal-opportunity distortion.

So, on the pro side, just as a for instance, we have the American Petroleum Institute spending a whopping $503,903, but it was on any of these things: 


That undoubtedly represents a long list of kinda complicated positions for the API to present, year-round, on behalf of its membership, to any number of state and local law-making and rule-making branches.  I have not been paying attention to this sort of thing my whole life, but I think it's fair to say that much of the API's expensive effort has gone on and on for years in New York, and similarly would have gone on since 2008, whether or not this state's boundaries were thought to even contain any shale gas worth fighting about.

Similarly, on the anti side, just as an equal time example, we have the Citizens Campaign for the Environment spending $83,035 on any number of these things: 


Quite a list, eh?  (And it looks like they could really use a spell-checker.)  But, again,
much of this green agenda would go on and on, regardless of shale gas.  The Citizens Campaign is one of New York's regularly encountered, door-to-door money seekers, using (or abusing) idealistic youngsters to carry out its fund-raising scheme in well-off, well-meaning, left-of-center, can't-say-no neighborhoods, such as where I live and make a living in Syracuse, NY.

There are probably only two entities on my list which can be off-handedly summed-up as exclusively focused on shale gas as a single issue — the anti group
Frack Action, and the landowners' coalition JLCNY, representing the pro side.  Though I haven't yet actually checked, all of the rest are likely to have been working in New York on all kinds of issues prior to 2008, and that's still pretty much a lot of what they're still up to.

So the bottom line on this is that these JCOPE records are a highly imperfect measure of everything that certain, selected pressure groups care about, that's being used by simple-minded journalists to measure just fracking pressure (pun not intended, but I'll just leave it).


Any other issues?  Yes, in fact, there are. 

For one, not every organization actually diligently follows the law and files these reports with JCOPE, which I'm given to understand is required twice annually. 

And, for two, it's unlikely that those which do report have been equally diligent in reporting all their pressure expenditures as lobbying.  For this second issue, you'd need a team of sober-but-hungry accountants — with access to not just the tax forms, but the actual books — to forensically determine how much any of these groups are wiggling within the generous leeway provided by this entire reporting scheme.

Pro or con, it doesn't matter — the Average Joe has little assurance whatsoever that anybody's really checking, though all this does raise a fair question:  Is it possible that some groups sleep very well at night, comfortable in the knowledge that they'll get a pass with their routine under-reporting, while other groups are too freaked out by the prospect of official or media exposure to take a chance on this?  I'd like to pointedly suggest that — right now, in New York, other than maybe banks, hedge funds, or Wall Street in general — there are few fatter political targets than the likes of the API.

But let's go back to my earlier point:  Who is illegally not reporting their lobbying expenditures as lobbying? 

Christ, you'd need an intern to figure all that out!  It would be like shooting ducks in a barrel, but you'd still need an intern.  In fact, this could be a very long list — and maybe I'll come back and add to it another time.  But, just off the top of my head, by way of getting things started:

Artists Against Fracking.  This is Yoko Ono and company.  They get fans to "take action" and write letters to the governor from this web site, and presumably through other media.  The AP surprisingly busted them a while back for unregistered lobbying, but they still haven't gone legit since.

A Million Fracking Letters Dot Com.  Pretty self-explanatory, but they're not on JCOPE's list.  It doesn't look like they're even organized as a not-for-profit.

Community Environmental Defense Council.  This is the wife-and-husband duo of lawyers, Helen and David Slottje, out of Ithaca.  For some many months now, they've received quite a bit of money from the Park Foundation, also out of Ithaca, to basically go full-time, driving from town to town, putting on "pro bono educational workshops," which essentially pressure municipal jurisdictions to either permanently zone out local drilling, or else temporarily put it under a moratorium.  Sometimes, it's real; other times, it's just symbolic.  But, apparently, the Slottje's don't think their work is lobbying within the purview of JCOPE, as their group is a no show on the official record since 2007.  And everybody just let's them get away with this self-serving re-definition of what it is they do for a living, probably because it would just be can't-win, bad PR to challenge such activists.

(I later learned there is a public ethics law exemption from reporting for lobbyist efforts before municpalities with fewer than 50,000 in population.  That's a loophole which likely covers most of the CEDC's rounds.)

The Park Foundation.  This is where the Duncan Hines cake mix fortune is slowly getting spent by the family's succeeding generations, none apparently making a living as businesspeople anymore.  Park has been shown — even, on at least one notable occasion, by mainstream media — to be the behind-the-scenes bankroll for literally a dozen or more pro-environment, anti-fracking campaigns in New York.  Anybody can comb Park's 2013 and prior grant-making on their web site here, and collate more than $1.6 million spread around just this year on environmental issues — maybe not all of it in NY, and not all of it just on fracking.  But, either way, JCOPE is deaf, dumb, and blind to it; Park doesn't show up anywhere since 2007.

The state's media is also largely deaf, dumb, and blind to the machinations of Park or its army of "grassroots" operators and allies.  In New York, the watchdogs in the press are going to quietly slink away from this kind of equal opportunity investigative reporting, and it's because they get pressure, too. 
As pro-drilling firebrand Tom Shepstone recently noted on his Natural Gas Now outlet, former Albany Times-Union scribe Jimmy Vielkind — now Albany bureau chief at Capital New York, and therefore in something of a position of authority over the former TU colleague who wrote the piece that originally set me off — is married to Environmental Advocates' Katherine Nadeau.  And Nadeau is somebody whom this and many other media outlets quote regularly on the fracking issue (in the case of Politico, without any disclosure of the connection) — at least when they're not all busy playing together, scribes and greens, in the same summer softball league.  It's just another reincarnation of the Old Boys Network, but everybody's younger, and not everybody's male, and the status quo they work to protect is something entirely different from what formerly ranked as establishment principles.

Then you've got a possibly even larger swath of Even Grayer Pressure Group Activity that's been costing somebody, somewhere, a boatload of money in an attempt to influence politics in this state, going on for more than five years now.  It may be pressure, but none of it technically ranks as lobbying.  In fact, for all anybody knows, this might be where the lion's share of the money should be followed, if it could be followed.

On the pro side, just as a for instance, Energy in Depth Marcellus, has always disclosed itself as an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.  At one time, but apparently not so much anymore, IPAA was paying a small staff of generally young persuaders in both NY and PA, working under Shepstone, to regularly make the pro-frack case on blogs and other new media, tied into in-person reporting at a myriad of local frack battle happenings in the Marcellus zone.  But neither IPAA or E-in-D has ever shown up as a lobbyist in New York since 2007. 

Their argument is that their work is free speech, public education, or propaganda — depending on how you want to phrase it — rather than lobbying.

And, of course, both sides can and do play that game — in fact, very well.  On the anti side, the number of organizations spending money to use
in-person public meetings, old media, web sites, and other new media to similarly "educate" the general public, including policy makers, toward the anti-frack side — well, it would just make your head spin.

How much have I spent so far on free speech, public education, or propaganda
— depending on how you want to phrase it — through this blog?  Expenses:  Probably less than $100, transferring some digital video on a SUNY-censored lecture on the geology of black shales by the since-pushed-out New York State Geologist Taury Smith, and every once in awhile paying for downloads of various court documents through PACER.  Compensation: $0 (though I did once enjoy a sub and a beer with some plumbers and pipefitters, riding a union-rented bus, back from a pro-drilling rally at Albany).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This, I Gotta See: DEC Uses Twitter to Check Facts on "Fracking Brine" as Road De-Icer

I noticed yesterday that New York's DEC has taken to Twitter in a half-hearted effort to set the record straight on the state's latest crisis du jour — "Fracking Brine!" — which was birthed last week by Politico's new Capital New York media outlet, as part of an ongoing romance between the colorful worlds of persuasion, journalism, and ignorance.

And then, apparently, nursed along by other feverish media outlets.

Close readers may note that the original Capital New York claims are impaired by some fairly well known, internally conflicted knowledge.  On the one hand, high-volume hydraulic fracturing in tight shales — also known as "fracking" — has been widely reported as still-under-ban in New York (and actually never before proposed in this state by industry, at least prior to Feb. 2008). 

According to opponents, when it suits their argument, fracking is a brand-new, dangerous technology that's been wisely put under moratorium in NY, and hasn't yet been given a full environmental review — in fact, something which really can't ever be done, by their reckoning.

However, these "facts" change when it suits a different argument.  Capital New York's Scott Waldman was effortlessly conned by Riverkeeper into reporting this road-deicing "fracking waste" is coming from 6,000 oil and gas wells that have already been drilled and fracked in New York!

So which is it?  Does NY frack or not?  Really, it looks like these Politico guys might have totally missed the really great scoop, hiding in the story, right in plain sight, the whole time:

New York Has Been Fracking for Last 50 Years!  Film at 11!

Of course, it turns out to be true that many of these old-school, mostly vertical wells in New York were completed over many past years by the always-and-still-permissable technology of low-volume hydraulic fracture — also known as "fracking" — a historical fact that proponents of domestic fossil fuels have been trying unsuccessfully to get across to the public for some time now.

So, if you're still confused by any of this, my only remaining advice is to simply get a copy of the latest dictionary of modern persuasion.  Mine shows that all watery waste produced from any oil and gas well — even a 50-year-old vertical that may have never been fracked to stimulate production — has now been helpfully re-defined as "fracking waste."

Or maybe the remaining confusion is because environmentalists and journalists don't know — or don't care to know — the geologic origin of the primary road de-icer known as rock salt,
spread on roads during winter by most northeastern state and local highway departments.

It's deep shit.

For further assistance on the origin of rock salt, I've loaded up top a helpful fact sheet plucked from the DEC Minerals Division's latest (2011!) annual report.  To make this fully legible, you'll have to click it into a new window and zoom around — or you can get the original here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bluestone Pipeline Now Pays More Than 6% of Property Taxes in Rustic Sanford, NY

Plucked from the web: Tax Assessor for the New York Town of Sanford (and adjoining Windsor) Becky Ottens.
Many people assume the shale gas technological revolution has so far had zero impact in New York State — except as the acknowledged source for much, much political turmoil.

But that's not all true everywhere. 

Leaving aside the consumption side, where there has actually been quite a bit of rarely acknowledged economic and environmental benefit, mostly for urban New Yorkers, here's a story about a very local property tax impact involving just the New York end of the small, shale-gas-triggered Bluestone Gathering Pipeline, coming out of Pennsylvania.

Let me just try to break all this down without boring you to even further tears.

This morning, I figured out how to look up the 2013 final assessment roll for the easternmost Town of Sanford in Broome County, NY.  This is a computer-generated sheaf of paper that's typically spit out in the summer of each year, then used as the basis for fall school tax bills, and then used again as the basis for town and county tax bills, which are generally due in January of the next calendar year.

The reason I did this is because something actually happened in Sanford between 2012 and 2013.  The Bluestone pipeline — originally proposed July 2011, then green-lighted for its NY end Sept. 2012 — was built in time to start flowing natural gas through to that NY end in the Town of Sanford as of May 2013. 

At 20 inches in diameter for much of its length, Bluestone now runs a total of 44 miles from the Marcellus Shale drilling hot zone in northeastern PA, northerly into NY.  But only about 9 miles of it are in NY, all in Sanford.  There in NY, Bluestone tees into an inter-connect with the larger Millennium Pipeline, which moves natural gas much further in the direction of greater NYC and other well-developed points beyond.  It's true that the molecules of natural gas in a transmission pipeline are generally all mixed together from multiple sources, but I think it's fair to say that virtually all of Bluestone's product is fully fracked shale gas coming out of PA — where that kind of drilling has always been kept legal, and has even been welcomed by many.  None of Bluestone's natgas originates out of NY.  Instead, we New Yorkers — even die-hard anti-frackers — simply play the role of helping pay the ultimate tab for this whole enterprise, by buying the stuff directly or indirectly as consumers and burning it, without protest or controversy.

People down in the Greater Binghamton area may not have taken much notice of Bluestone, but the town tax assessor in Sanford, Becky Ottens, certainly did.  This past fall, payers of school taxes in Sanford should have also noticed for the first time that something was up.  Come January, when the town and county tax bill comes due, these folks should also be in for another pleasant surprise.

Here's why:

Bluestone is now the assessed taxpayer for two newly created accounts related to their new pipeline.  There are two accounts because the lay of the pipeline in Sanford means its taxes have to be split across two school districts — some for the Lumberjacks at Deposit Central, and some for the Black Knights at Windsor Central.

(Note that, in New York, we pretty much tax every kind of real estate, including natural gas wells, and natural gas pipelines situate within purchased rights of way, both of which are on land that's usually technically owned by somebody else.  We tax everything, that is, so long as the real estate isn't owned by government or a not-for-profit, or so long as the development doesn't involve a tax-break program for which the politicians get to take credit for progress.)

Becky Ottens'
total assessed value for Bluestone in Sanford is $10,578,120.  All of this value is taxable for county, town, and school taxes, and none of it has been made exempt by any kind of economic development handout from state or local authorities.  Converted to "full market value" — using Sanford's 60% equalization rate, which means assessments are by local practice running at 60% of actual full value — this shows the town assessor is calculating the in-the-ground infrastructure as worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $17.6 million.  (Getting sleepy yet?)

Now, then, for the context: 

What is the total taxable value (not the total assessed value, due to the various exemptions) of the Town of Sanford?  For county taxes, total taxable is $157,635,235, town taxable is $161,522,490, and school taxable is $163,179,811.  So that means the pipeline — again, $10,578,120, totally taxable — is now covering between about 6.5% and 6.7% of the money Sanfordians hand over annually in county, town, and school property taxes.

It also means that everybody else in Sanford — even any anti-frackers that might be holding out down there — should, from now on, be paying significantly less than they would be without the pipeline. 

(This is assuming the local budgets didn't jump up in lockstep in order to eat all of the now-enlarged tax base, which is always possible, but I just don't know how to check this just yet.  Somebody else will have to do the work of ascertaining just how much Deposit Central and Windsor Central school tax bills have already dropped this past fall for the average taxpayer, and just how much the average Town of Sanford town and county property tax bill will drop when it comes due in January 2014.  As I said, a lot of that depends on the school and town budgets, and the consequent levies, and I just don't have my hands on that stuff. 
Maybe Becky Ottens or Town Supervisor Dewey Decker knows.)

Note lastly that there are also two vacant parcels on Pazzelli Road in Sanford, said to be worth $150K at full market value, that are assessed to Bluestone as owner outright.  But I'm not counting these because, for these, Bluestone is simply picking up more or less the same tax bill as was paid by whichever Sanfordian owned that land previously.

The pipeline is different, though.  It didn't exist, previously, to generate taxes.

It's true that Bluestone represents just the tip of the overall shale gas iceberg, even just the tip of just the Marcellus shale gas iceberg.  But it's one of the few small portions that have already managed to encroach themselves into New York — a state where there really should be license plates offered that read "Frackless Since 2008."

Whether you're freaked out, open minded, or gung ho on the fracking question, it's already a fact that Bluestone has delivered a net positive shale gas impact in Sanford.  There's more where that came from, but, to get it, New York's governor is going to have to bite the political bullet, coming from his left, and finally issue regulations covering the drilling of these new kinds of wells.

Friday, December 6, 2013

DMP/Williams Files with NYS PSC for 2nd Parallel Natgas Pipeline Into Windsor, NY

Some more unnoticed "public notice," that I noticed this morning.

Here's a link to this particular NYS PSC file's overall table of contents, which should keep delivering updates to you, as this application inevitably builds and builds
, voluminously.

What this is is — in a nutshell, because I don't have much free, unpaid time right now — is this:  This is a flood of paperwork — 89 documents in just the first salvo, filed Dec. 2, 2013 — put forth with the New York State Public Service Commission by DMP New York, Inc. and Williams Field Services Company, LLC

To my knowledge, these entities are the current owners of a now-already-installed 16" PA-to-Windsor, NY natural gas pipeline which originally went by the tagline "Laser," but is now apparently called the "New York Mainline."

The new, proposed work they're calling the "New York Mainline Loop."

The paperwork shows the pipeline developers have contracted with Northeast PA drillers that have so much shale gas they want to get to the Northeastern U.S. market, there's a plan to
put in a second, parallel, 16" pipeline — right into still-frackless NY, presumably allowing them to feed twice as much product into the west-east Millennium Pipeline.

Should be of interest to taxpayers in the Township of Windsor, NY, and taxpayers in whatever school district soaks that particular area with tax bills, including tax bills to pipeline owners (I'm assuming that would be the Black Knights at Windsor Central).

Should also be of interest to landowners along the route.

Should also be of interest to readers of the Binghamton, NY newspaper, always on the lookout for more unsubsidized private-sector investment in Gov. Cuomo's "Open for Business" Southern Tier.  (But it doesn't look like the newspaper people are on top of it yet, which doesn't surprise me.)

And it should also be of interest to NY and PA pipeline specialists, folks with the know-how, the where-with-all, and the crying economic need to line up some more work for themselves, down the road.

Some additional context: 

Sometime around Oct. 2012, there was some rare reporting, I believe originating out of the Binghamton newspaper, which showed that what was then known as the Laser pipeline (and compressor station) gave a nearly $30 million boost to the Town of Windsor's taxable value.  But even that's not a fair number, as Windsor assesses property at 68% of full value, according to the latest state-issued equalization rate, so it's really more like a $44 million development.

I just double-checked the math, and the Jan. 2013 data for Windsor shows $446K paid in town and county taxes by the Laser/Williams pipeline people.  In the context of a township with a total annual collection of $4,226K, that's more than 10% of the tax base that's being carried by that part of this pipeline development that's already in the ground.  The first year the tax impact materialized, the pipeline was credited with lowering town and county tax bills for Windsorians by 8% on average — which stands to reason if the town's budget went up slightly over the same time period.  I haven't also double-checked the math on the school tax side, but Windsor Central school taxes were last reported to be lowered by 5.8% due to the pipeline.

Needless to say, if the developers succeed in putting in a second twin pipeline and whatever additional infrastructure it takes to run it, the Windsor assessor is going to get a chance to re-run these numbers all over again.

Meanwhile, here's a question:  Over in the neighboring Town of Sanford, which employs the same assessor, when will local people see the impact of installation of the similar Bluestone Pipeline, green-lighted by the State of New York in Sept. 2012, and reported to be flowing gas into the NYS end as of May 2013?  I got to the bottom of the answer to that question here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Plan: Export PA NatGas to Canada Via Dreaded Pipelines in Frackless NY

Does Canada make a Good Bogeyman for Red-Necked Xenophobes in Upstate New York?

Or, rather, does Canada make a good bogeyman for those who seek to push their political agenda by needling the emotions of red-necked xenophobes in Upstate New York?

I realize that Canadians have a reputation for being so polite, and so nice, but this... this could mean war!

Persuasive strategists within New York's over-sized army of anti-fossil fuels and anti-fracking activists are undoubtedly considering the Canadian Question this morning.

Here's why:

These activists have been building up a growing list of various natural gas infrastructure battles being waged in still-frackless New York.  Close to the top on this list, they've been trying to kill a PA-NY natural gas pipeline proposed to run across their backyard upstate counties of Broome, Delaware, Chenango, Otsego, and Schoharie — the Constitution Pipeline. 

And here suddenly is a chance to gain some political traction with the otherwise skeptical local worthies in Upstate New York:  Iroquois — a different pipeline, which is already in place, slicing elsewhere across upstate — is testing the North American market for long-term interest in reversing its pipeline's originally intended, circa-1992 flow of natural gas from Canada toward the New York City metropolitan area — and exporting much of the shale gas instead to Canada!

It turns out there's so much natural gas being fracked out of the Appalachian Basin states of PA, WV, and OH — and so much natural gas that's soon expected to be made available to Iroquois at the planned Schoharie County, NY, junction with the Constitution Pipeline — that Iroquois is thinking about switching things up and sending nearly half of that new capacity to Canada.

Yeah, Canada — send it right across the St. Lawrence River through the customs curtain at Waddington, NY.

Here's a link to a specialized news service's coverage of this otherwise beneath-the-radar development.

Does that make an anti-fracker's blood boil?

Why should we New Yorkers have to tear up upstate to help out those Canadian bastards?

This could be like Keystone XL in reverse!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Norse Energy Bankruptcy Trustee to
Sue Cuomo on Indefinite Frack Ban

A couple public documents quietly popped Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in a highly obscure location — Item Number 637, deep in the congested bowels of a federal bankruptcy court case — revealing a new strategy aimed at breaking the now-kindergarten-aged Shale Gas Stalemate in New York.

On Friday, I tried to get a much, much more widely read Marcellus shale news platform to run with this, but it didn't work out.  I'm instead killing some of my Saturday, at least temporarily cracking back open my moribund blog.  (Yeah, sorry about that; I've been a busy, dispirited New Yorker, making a living working on shale gas projects in West Virginia.)  I've combined the four relevant bankruptcy court pages to a single PDF and posted it to Scribd for all to see, interpret, mull over — and to celebrate or freak out about, depending:

The scoop on this, incidentally, belongs to "SONY," a Natural Gas Forum for Landowners participant, and to Binghamton, NY real estate lawyer Gary B. Kline, a Twitterer who goes by the handle @houseattorney.  For all I know, these may be two electronic incarnations of the same dude, as both
on Nov. 20 made cryptic references to the Norse trustee's plan to mount a legal challenge to New York State, such as here:

Just for the record, the documents are from U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Western District of New York (Buffalo), Bankruptcy Petition #: 1-12-13685-CLB.  Norse's first filing for bankruptcy is already nearly a year old, dating from Dec. 6, 2012.  Then the case was converted from the original reorganization attempt to a strip-and-unload situation as of Oct. 10, 2013.

So here's a layman's interpretation of this latest plan:  On behalf of a tiny, Norwegian oil and gas player, that's in the process of going bankrupt, and whose profile stands as a martyr to the unholy business climate in the Empire State, file an Article 78 proceeding, seeking to have a court force New York State government to do its job already — that is, to declare finally finished the environmental impact statement covering high-volume hydraulic fracturing (and then, presumably, to start issuing drilling permits).

Over the years, prior to going out of business, Norse Energy applied for a bunch of such permits, targeting both Marcellus and Utica shales, with drillsite locations spread atop its rural checkerboard of a leasehold in selected portions of Madison, Chenango, and Broome counties.  But all these applications have been collecting dust on an Albany shelf someplace, on account of New York's political inability to get its regulatory act together on fracking.

In New York, an "Article 78" proceeding is essentially The Last Bastion for Those Dispossessed by Government's Refusal to Act.  To prevail, you basically need a lot of money, and to find a judge who's similarly disgusted by the gridlock.

Technically, however, here's all that's happened so far:  The appointed lawyer-trustee in Norse Energy's Chapter 7 case (a wind-down bankruptcy) has asked the judge for permission to employ a specialist lawyer for a suit against New York State's Primary Foot-Draggers in the Shale Gas Quagmire — Governor Andrew Cuomo, DEC head Joe Martens, and DOH head Nirav Shah (both appointed by Cuomo, and therefore mere arms of his administration).

Word on the street is that something's supposed to break after the Thanksgiving holiday, when the courts happen to reopen for business on Monday, Dec. 2.

There wouldn't seem to be anybody in the bankruptcy courtroom with an interest in saying "No" to such a scheme.  The federal rep has already blessed the idea by saying "no objection" on Nov. 21.  And Norse's Stiffed Creditors are entitled to seek as many cents on the dollar as they can possibly scavenge from the would-be driller's carcass.  In the most optimistic strategic forecast, getting New York's shale gas blockade judicially lifted would overnight raise the market value of Norse's portfolio of inactive, aging oil and gas development leases — all of which have been granted over many prior years at low signing bonuses, delay rentals, and royalty rates by ever-hopeful upstate landowners.  Under New York's current, joke-worthy, "Open for Business" policy, the market value of this leasehold currently stands at basically zero.

The specialist lawyer the bankruptcy trustee wants to hire is Thomas S. West of Albany's West Law Firm, the top dog in a very small, native pool of gas industry representatives who are ready, willing, and able to go to work, should there ever be much such business to litigate over
in New York.  West is already the gas industry's rep in one of the handful of local drill ban challenges that are still hanging fire — in Norse Energy (it was originally Anschutz) versus Ithaca's exurban Town of Dryden, Tompkins County.  The Dryden case is supposedly due to be heard and decided at the appellate level sometime in 2014 — along with an essentially equivalent companion case featuring the slight difference of a landowner, a dairy farmer, being the one to challenge a local drill ban in Cooperstown's exurban Town of Middlefield, Otsego County.

Elsewhere upstream in the bankruptcy court's river of paper, the file shows the bankruptcy trustee had previously, in October 2013, formally rehired West to keep on keeping on with Norse's Dryden appeal.  And it further shows that West has been and is "handling that case based upon contributions from other industry sources."

That same sort of thickening plot also features in the Norse trustee's proposed Article 78 challenge, as there's word within the documents that West is prepared to go to work for free or "pro bono" — at least in so far as Norse, Norse's creditors, the trustee, or the court are concerned.  Instead, West proposes to get paid by "independent third parties ('The Funding Parties')" that have already agreed to finance such a case.  Needless to say, these funders aren't named, but it's a sure bet they ain't the Park Foundation.

The bottom line is that Norse's death is important enough to somebody, somewhere, that there's quite a bit of money being spent on the funeral, but not for flowers.  Instead, the file shows Norse's bankrupt Viking ghost is being propped up alongside West at the plaintiff's table for test cases at both the local and now statewide levels.  Whether New York State continues to sit out the whole production side of the shale gas revolution may well hang in the balance.  If Norse is, in the end, able to reach out from its grave, and make a difference for we survivors — yes, that would be something.

Let me just close with a long, bitter digression on the issue of behind-the-scenes funding in New York's ongoing, and pretty tiresome, frack battle.  Most media consumers hereabouts — dependent on an unbalanced diet of what passes for mainstream coverage in this state — are probably of the mistaken impression that this dispute exclusively involves the nefarious, profit-seeking Big Oil and Gas Industry, with lots of money to burn, going up against the not-for-profit, public-interest-oriented Environmental Groups, with just a sorry frayed shoestring to hold their colorful grassroots together.

It makes a compelling media narrative, partly because it's so familiar, and it seems to make sense to most innocent people.  At this point, everybody's already seen the undoubtedly expensive Clean Shale Gas Revolution television ads, featuring the straight-up blond woman, attempting to put out a cheerful wholesome counterpoint to a myriad of also undoubtedly expensive wild-eyed diatribes
put forth in a variety of media from the anti side.

The only trouble is that actual facts conflict with this narrative.  Leaving aside the well-established fact that the anti side is remarkably well-endowed in New York,
and also self-interested, my main case in point is the forgotten "other party" in this dispute — the pro-drilling, resource-owning landowners themselves, together with like-minded, Chamber of Commerce types with a legitimate interest in re-legalizing opportunity in upstate New York.

The land-owning stakeholders' primary representative is the Joint Landowners Coalition of New YorkSince February 2013, the JLCNY has been passing the hat for a similar legal challenge to New York State — on novel grounds that the state's interminable fracking delay amounts to an unjustly uncompensated "taking" of private property, which is illegal under both the state and federal constitutions.  (In America, all this started with the Bill of Rights, the 5th Amendment, which — among other colonial-era beefs — rules out
the taking of private property for public use, without just compensation.)

JLCNY has already lined up a sampling of model plaintiffs, most or all of whom were chosen for owning only mineral rights (no surface ownership), and who can therefore make the legally important argument that they've been stripped of all, or virtually all, their property.  JLCNY has also already announced its legal team has put in 300-plus hours organizing the complaint.

So why don't they file already?  It turns out, nine months later, the landowners group still does not have enough money!  In fact, at last word, in-the-know landowners were reporting that only $67,000 had been raised out of a funding goal of $100,000.  $100K may not even be enough to see the case through to either triumph, or whatever legal dead end it may be doomed to be funneled into.  But, regardless, they're not filing until they have the full $100K to get it rolling, and they just don't have it yet.

So what gives? 
If it were up to the leftward-ho Box Cake Mix Heirs at the Park Foundation, or the similarly situated Ketchup Heirs at Heinz, $100K for any kind of anti-side legal challenge would not be a problem.  And everybody knows that a Chesapeake Energy or an ExxonMobil — both of which can effortlessly prove they've also had leased property rights that were made worthless by the situation in New York — could, in a heartbeat, figure out a way to write checks for the rest of what the JLCNY needs.

But here's the rub:  Because this sort of David v. Goliath Showdown is set to occur in as much a political arena as a legal one, the JLCNY Elders — for reasons of keeping the group's motives pure — refuse to accept industry money to fund their case!

Is that notably noble, or just plain stupid, or what is it? 

But let me just further ask — has anybody ever read such a key fact in any of the Gannett chain dailies, which claim to serve the Southern Tier epicenter for this conflict?  Have any comfort-the-afflicted scribes statewide
given equal time to these downtrodden citizens, with their sorry frayed shoestring?  Has public radio's Susan Arbetter — or the laughably misnamed "Innovation Trail" (where the coverage inexorably skews toward provincial well-off activist resistance to the now-global innovation of shale gas technology) — noted that upstate landowners are now so beaten down, so dispirited, and so impoverished as to struggle for the resources to simply demand their day in court?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Modest Proposal: Drill-Ban Towns Could Just Ask Folks to Vote with Their Square Feet

I realize this idea will never fly.  But it would be much fairer than the current confiscatory state of affairs regarding shale gas in New York, where the winners don't even bother seeking to meet the losers half-way.

Rather than put in a temporary moratorium or permanent ban on drilling, New York townships could simply rent the underlying mineral rights — and then decline to use them.  It's not a solution that relies on blunt regulation, or fiat, but on compromise and horse-trading.

It's very similar to a public agency, or an environmentally minded group, buying development rights, sometimes also known as conservation easements.  These involve willing sellers, willing buyers, and prices they meet at someplace in the middle.

In New York, towns wouldn't have to lease everything.  Just a tad above 40%, on average, crazy-quilted across the landscape, would prevent any serious operator from qualifying for a state permit for anything other than an old-school vertical well.

Town leaders could just sit down with the grassroots landowner coalitions and negotiate the price on a 5- or 10-year model lease:  Joe and Josephine Landowner, Lessor, to Town of Freakout, Lessee.  And then the town would have to pay up, of course.  And, yes, you'd have to do it all over again in five or ten years, if the townspeople haven't come around to any kind of New Religion in the meanwhile.

To motivate the marketplace, a town could run it as a first-come, first-serve, limited-time-offer kind of thing — at least until its quota is reached, at which point they could close up the lease-buying shop, and the latecomers lose their chances.

Put the word out what the standing offer is, buy some lunch for a few otherwise idle notaries public, and schedule a couple signings en masse.  Possibly sync these events up with a chicken barbecue or something, and put on some heartfelt presentations in the school auditorium themed "Peace in Our Time."

People with a lot of land effectively get a discount, or possibly even a rebate, on their land taxes.  Villagers and small lot holders make up the difference.  It's an end to the bully's free lunch of getting away with just pushing people around.

Ever-mistrustful anti's would be free to boycott the proceedings by either relying instead upon their tallies of acreage that's already pledged to never (again) be put under lease.  Or by leasing all their land, for a nominal price, and for the same no-drill purpose, to an organization they feel confident will never do anything with those rights.

Vote with your square feet.

Either way, you add it all up, and you could put a rough pricetag on the preliminary costs of a community's decision to decline the opportunity shale gas poses — at least within the current climate of nagging skepticism that New York will ever be able to get its act together on this score.

The point is these bans cost something.  For those landowners willing to turn down such an opportunity, and to eat those costs on principle, I see it as a matter of private rights and choice, and I cannot object. 

But for those who demand to be compensated for something owned — something that's essentially being confiscated from them by popular will — show them the money.  To me, it's just another side to the coin of "environmental justice."

Then put the whole lease plan to a referendum, including the final costs.  If the townsfolk start back-peddling when the final bill comes due, well, then, that should tell you something about the depth of their current mania.

All this is the same kind of tough choice anybody faces in any kind of legitimate marketplace:  If there's no cost to the proponent, demand is unlimited, but, if there's skin in the game — well, then, not so much.