Fight Over Fracking Continues as Counties Begin to Ban Practice

Environmental interest groups score wins on fracking bans in New Mexico, New York.

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An anti-fracking rally at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Though the state's government has not decided whether to ban fracking, one town has joined a county in New Mexico in banning the practice.

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While the nation's so-called "Shale Gale" might be benefiting some communities in the United States, one county in New Mexico has said "no thanks" to a stronger oil and gas industry presence in its region.

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Mora County, N.M. voted to ban all oil and gas extraction this week, after commissioners decided federal and state laws did not adequately protect communities from the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, a common practice used to extract oil and gas from shale rock.

"They just come in and do whatever is necessary for them to make profits," Mora County, N.M. commissioner Alfonso Griego told E&E News. "There is technology for them to do it right, but it's going to cost them more money. They're not willing to do that yet. So we don't want any oil and gas extraction in the county of Mora. It's beautiful here."

According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Center for People & the Press, about half of Americans (48 percent) support fracking. But Mora County is thought to be the first county in the nation to impose an outright fracking ban, and the move comes as states around the country grapple with how to address the controversial process, which involves injecting millions of gallons of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into well heads.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., promised months ago that a decision would soon be made on whether oil and gas companies operating in his state could use fracking to extract resources trapped in shale formations. But that has been indefinitely delayed after a key Cuomo administration official said Thursday there is "no timetable" for a decision, the Associated Press reported. That prolongs a de facto moratorium on horizontal drilling and fracking that has been in place in New York since 2008.

The moratorium wasn't enough for residents of Dryden, N.Y., who took matters into their own hands. Faced with the prospect of oil and gas interests developing resources within their town limits, residents and elected leaders amended zoning ordinances to prohibit oil and gas development activities, including fracking. What ensued was a long legal battle, which culminated in a victory for the town Thursday when a state court of appeals ruled in favor of the anti-fracking coalition.

"The decision recognizes that towns had this right all along," says Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued the case for Dryden. "This is not a radically different concept and it's hardly a hotbed of tree-hugging environmentalists."

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But others see the win for anti-fracking interests in Dryden and New Mexico as a recipe for a convoluted patchwork of regulatory chaos where some cities allow oil and gas development and others prohibit it.

"What if every county in every state had its own drivers' license? Just to drive across the state you would need to have a dozen different licenses," says Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy In Depth, the research and outreach arm for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "We know that geological formations don't often conform to what the city and county planners decide will be the borders, so you have to have some form of uniformity so a company can invest there. Otherwise why would they take the risk in the state at all?"

The tensions bubbling at the state and local level have prompted those in Washington to take a closer look at what role the federal government should play in fracking regulation. A proposed rule by the Obama administration would require companies to disclose proprietary formulations of chemicals used in fracking operations in hopes of increasing public confidence in the practice. Newly confirmed Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell recently announced that new draft federal rules on fracking will be released in a matter of "weeks, not months."

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While some say the federal government isn't going far enough to hold oil and gas companies accountable, others say it's traditionally been the state's role – not the federal government's – to regulate energy production within their borders.