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Dreams of gas riches fading in N.Y.

Mike Groll/Associated Press

Judi Whittaker sees the potential for natural-gas riches of the Marcellus Shale under the land of her family’s farm in Whitney Point, N.Y. Repeated delays by the state about whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has many landowners like Whittaker frustrated. Some would like to lease their land to energy developers.

Associated Press

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – When word spread about the potential natural-gas riches of the Marcellus Shale, Kimberly More saw it as the hope for saving her horse farm.

She figured that leasing her 170 acres to a drilling company could bring an upfront bonus of nearly half a million dollars, plus a monthly royalty when gas starts to flow, enough to pay for a new house, a new barn and her own riding business.

“I have three young girls. My husband left,” More said. “I don’t want to be on social services. I want to take care of my family with my own land.”

But five years later, her natural-gas dreams and those of thousands of other New York landowners have faded to frustration as a decision languishes about whether the state should allow fracking, the process of extracting gas by drilling horizontally through the shale and breaking it apart with chemically treated water.

They’re waiting for environmental studies about the potential for groundwater contamination. They’re waiting for drilling rules and regulations to be drawn up. And most of all, they’re waiting for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make up his mind about whether to lift a moratorium on fracking.

The latest delay came when the Cuomo administration announced in February that more time was needed to study potential health effects. That meant the Department of Environmental Conservation failed to meet a deadline earlier this month to adopt proposed regulations, which will have to be resubmitted and subjected to public hearings and comment.

Decisions once thought to be right around the corner have been delayed for weeks that turned into months and years. Hopes to pay off crushing debt, repair barn roofs, replace old tractors, create good jobs locally so the kids don’t have to move away, and just ease some of the chronic worry about making ends meet on the family farm have been put in limbo.

Some New York landowners fear their golden opportunity has already passed them by because the glut of gas from drilling in other states has brought gas prices way down, reducing the likelihood of big upfront lease-signing bonuses.

Other landowners who don’t want gas leases welcome Cuomo’s caution and hope fracking never gets approved. Their ranks include many organic farmers, vineyard owners, tourist business operators and town residents who agree with environmental groups that the risks of air and water contamination outweigh the financial benefits.

While More waits for a natural-gas payday that may never come, she has had to borrow money to pay her property taxes. She supports her family by managing someone else’s property and giving riding lessons. But she’s now on the brink of losing her farm in Otego, 73 miles southwest of Albany.

“When they say a few more weeks’ delay isn’t causing people hardship, they’re wrong,” More said. “I’m probably going to lose my land to taxes because they wanted to dicker around for two or three more weeks. They’ve been studying this for five years. Enough is enough.”

Dave Johnson, who has a 30-acre pick-your-own apple farm on his mostly wooded 400 acres in Binghamton, said gas-drilling money would allow him to replace some worn-out equipment like the tractor that he has to start with a screwdriver. But even more important to him is keeping struggling farms in business through an additional income, and creating new jobs for the next generation.

“Our young people are leaving us,” Johnson said. “At Farm Bureau meetings, everybody’s got white hair.”

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