As Fracking Spreads Ever-Wider, Communities Increasingly Fight to Determine Own Fate

There’s been a lot of coverage in the national news of late shining a spotlight on the real impacts fracking is having on small towns across the country.  Just this past weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a new analysis on fracking’s ever-widening presence in our lives, finding that at least 15 million Americans now live within a mile of a fracking site.

That’s about 1 in 20 Americans who are being, or have been, subjected to all of the heavy industrial impacts that fracking brings – up to 1,000 heavy truck trips per well pad, noise, glaring lights, dust, and the potential for exposure to hazardous air and water pollutants.

That news came on the heels of a New York Times story about a small New York town called Dryden’s legal efforts to keep fracking out of their community by retaining control of its own local zoning authority, despite industry repeatedly dragging them to court claiming the town shouldn’t have a say in whether industry enters its borders.  We’ve been a part of that case (and its companion involving a similar situation in the Town of Middlefield, NY), and plan to continue to help defending the towns’ rights to determine their  own fracking future as the cases move to the highest court in the state. 

The Towns of Dryden and Middlefield are at the forefront of efforts in New York to defend the right of all municipalities in the state to exercise their traditional land use powers to determine where – if at all – fracking takes place within their own borders.  Thus far, the lower courts have sided with the towns, finding that, as with any other heavy industry, democratically elected local governments in New York are entitled to conclude that the types of noxious impacts described above are incompatible with their character and existing land uses.

The issues raised in the Dryden and Middlefield cases are of critical importance to NRDC, which is why we started the Community Fracking Defense Project a little over a year ago.  This Project is designed to support communities already engaged in the fight to defend themselves from the risks of unconventional oil and gas development and to strengthen the ability of communities everywhere to protect their health, their environment, and their way of life from fracking.  We work to achieve this goal in a number of ways, including helping communities craft effective local laws on fracking, defending those laws in court when challenged by industry and others, and working at all levels to preserve and protect community rights and local control. 

These issues of local control and self-determination cut to the heart of American democracy.  As my colleague Henry Henderson has written, “one of the most alarming [issues that comes up in the fracking context] is the fact that overzealous protections for the limited economic interests of oil and gas companies are prioritized over the broad property rights that Americans have enjoyed for most of the nation’s history.”

As Henry reported, Ohio has not been as lucky as New York has thus far. The courts have prevented local governments from enforcing their own laws – which are based on their police powers to protect their citizens’ health and environment – against the oil and gas industry.  NRDC’s Community Fracking Defense Project has gotten involved in this case, too, in an effort to help municipalities use their traditional zoning powers to protect themselves against the risks of fracking.

We’re also working with communities in in California, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania to assert, exercise and/or protect their powers against an industry that has for too long been allowed to trample over communities and their democratic rights.

The oil and gas industry has made great progress in eroding some of the most basic rights that our nation was founded upon, and that Americans have enjoyed for most of our history. They must not be allowed to take away a community’s right to protect its citizens and determine its own fate. We must demand that the best interests of American citizens win over the greed of the oil and gas industry. It’s a powerful foe, but it’s one we’re determined to keep fighting – town by town, state by state.

About the Authors

Kate Sinding

Senior Adviser to the President

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