Covert, New York, small, rural, agricultural and not the kind of place you would expect a battle to be taking place. The headline should probably read David battles Goliath. What is happening in Covert NY is a story of people taking on the natural gas giants and their own town government.
While the state of New York does have a moratorium in place, Covert joins other towns in not counting on the moratorium to protect them from the industrialization of their communities. They know the moratorium may not last, and should a state ban on gas drilling happen it may be quickly turned over by a state administration and/or legislature. Like the Boy Scouts, they are being prepared.
On Thursday, May 2, 2013, the New York State Appellate Court upheld the use of zoning laws to ban gas drilling. At the forefront are the towns of Dryden in Tompkins County, and Middlefield in Otsego County. This is a huge defeat to the natural gas industry’s challenges to New York’s home rule provisions.
The home rule provision in NY’s state constitution allows local ordinances to trump state laws. For those believing in small government, well, you can’t get any smaller than local town government.
PENNSYLVANIA, BEST WORST EXAMPLE OF THE NATURAL GAS INDUSTRY
Like so many other grassroots groups in other states, the NY groups looked to Pennsylvania. They came; they saw and ran home to stop it from happening in their communities. They saw the flares, the drill pads, the water, the traffic, and the transformation of rural communities into industrial parks.
Kelly Branigan’s husband, a nurse-anesthesiologist, had been working in a hospital just south of the New York border in northeastern Pennsylvania, ground zero for drilling. He stayed there during the week, coming home each weekend to Middlefield’s fresh air and quiet. He told Kelly about air and water contamination, truck traffic, accidents, health impacts, communities ripped apart. “I refuse to live like that,” he said. “We need to do what we can to stop it. If it comes to Middlefield, we’re gone.”
Middlefield and Dryden were threatened by lawsuits from the natural gas industry, and the industry’s backed front group of Joint Landowner’s Coalition of New York (JLCNY). JLCNY has recently aligned itself with Americans For Prosperity, a Koch Brothers funded organization. (See JLCNY From Grassroots to Astrotruf)
Covert, New York is about to join Middlefield, Dryden and other New York communities in this battle, and it is going to be a big battle indeed.
COVERT, NEW YORK
Covert, NY is located in Seneca County with a population of approx. 2,100. According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 37.6 square miles (97 km2), of which, 31.5 square miles (82 km2) of it is land and 6.1 square miles (16 km2) of it (16.31%) is water.
The south town line borders Schuyler County, New York, to the southwest and Tompkins County to the southeast and the east town line is defined by Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. The town of Lodi is to the west and the town of Ovid is to the north.
Covert was set aside from the Town of Ovid in 1817 as part of Tompkins County, but was returned to Seneca County in 1819. The Town of Lodi was taken off the western part of Covert in 1826.
In 1904 Interlaken (previously called “Farmer”) set itself apart by becoming an incorporated village.
Cayuga Lake is the home of many of the “summer people” who come to enjoy the quiet and peace of rural Covert.
In many respects, it is not all that different than the rural communities of Pennsylvania, and what Covert residents saw happening to those Pennsylvanian communities spurred them into action.
BASEMENTS TO TOWN MEETINGS
As is often the case, grassroots groups begin with a few people meeting at someone’s home, the same is true for Covert. In the fall of 2012, the basement meetings emerged with the formation of Concerned Citizens of Covert (CCC) with the main objective of enacting a gas drilling ban in the Town of Covert.
September 29, 2012, the CCC sent a letter to the town board of supervisors requesting a Gas Drilling Advisory Committee be created with the purpose of researching and educating residents about the industry’s activities.
The town board ignore it.
What happened on October 8, 2012 is interesting. (CLICK HERE FOR TOWN OF COVERT – REGULAR TOWN BOARD MEETING, OCTOBER 8, 2012 Minutes)
Barry Ford, a Covert resident, addressed the board about concerned citizens regarding gas drilling.
Supervisor Reynolds made it pretty clear that NO ACTION would be taken on gas drilling….. until later in the evening when the town board passed RESOLUTION # 12-12 Natural Gas Drilling Position, (scroll to page 5 of the minutes).
One Covert resident called it the Head-In-the-Sand Resolution. It may be a head in the sand resolution, but was also an ambush with a cookie cutter.
As reported by Ellen Cantarow in her article Little Revolution, Big Fracking Consequences | November 18, 2012: (emphasis added)
In May 2012, Dewey Decker and his board passed a resolution pledging that the town of Sanford would take no action against fracking, while awaiting the decision of the DEC. There was no prior notice. Citizens were left to read about it in their local papers. “You wake up the next morning and say, ‘What happened?’” commented Doug Vitarious, a retired Sanford elementary school teacher.
In June, a headline in the Deposit Courier, a Sanford paper, read “Local Officials in Eligible Communities Approve Pro-Drilling Resolutions.” Accompanying the piece was a map of towns that had passed such resolutions. The subscript under the map read: “Joint Landowners Coalition of N.Y.” The JLCNY is the state’s grassroots gas industry ally, whose stated mission is to “foster… the common interest… as it pertains to natural gas development.” Decker represents the organization in Sanford.
During the summer, Vitarious and other citizens asked their town board where the resolution had originated, but were met with silence. They requested that the board rescind the resolution and conduct a referendum. Decker refused.
By the end of August, 43 towns in the region had passed resolutions modeled on one appearing at the JLCNY website. It stipulates that at the local level “no moratorium on hydraulic fracturing will be put in place before the state of New York has made it’s [sic] decision.” Under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council obtained records from Sanford and two other towns about how they achieved their objectives. The records, says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, “detail contacts between gas industry operatives and officials.”
CCC took the next step of circulating a petition. This took place in the fall and winter months of 2012, most of the summer people had left by then, so only the permanent residents of Covert were contacted.
The petition yielded a 68% vote against gas drilling. In real numbers, this is approx. 1,400 people, and well over ½ the town’s population. The town board remained deaf.
Research into leases in Covert revealed approx. 44% of the land has been leased by 3% of the population. The largest land owner is the Austic Farms with about 10,000 acres.
The Covert town board fails to grasp the simple basis of a democracy, and that being 1 person = 1 vote. It is not 1 acre = 1 vote, nor 1 dollar = 1 vote.
If you live in a small town, you know town meetings are sparsely attended. CCC changed that. Town meetings are now packed, and the primary topic is natural gas drilling. CCC sends out notices to its members to remind them to get on the agenda, and to show up at the meetings.
The meetings usually start at 7pm.
Residents wishing to speak at town meetings must register prior to the meeting to be afforded their 3 minutes of speaking time. The 3 minutes is reserved for residents only – no non-residents are allowed to speak. At least, that’s what the rules say.
Town board members maintain their deafness during the 3 minute speaking times, except at one meeting in February of 2013 when a miracle happened and the town board recovered their hearing……and broke their own rules.
What was different about the February meeting? People usually start showing up about 15 minutes before the 7pm start time and find plenty of room to sit. On this particular day, the room was more than half full long before 7pm with pro-drilling advocates, who had been absent from previous meetings.
The only conclusion as to why the sudden attendance by pro-driller advocates is someone or some organization packed the crowd. The town meeting room would normally seat 70 people comfortably. CCC members and supporters took what seats were available, and others were forced to stand and spill out into hallways, more were turned away due to fire code laws regarding maximum number of people allowed in the building.
As mentioned, speaking at the town meetings is only allowed for residents of Covert, so it came as quite a surprise when the rules were broken and one non-resident was allowed to speak, and for longer than 3 minutes.
The non-resident identified himself as Jordon DePue of Pennsylvania. He spoke about how wonderful it is to live in Pennsylvania, and how great gas drilling has been for his area. Essentially, he recited basic talking points of the natural gas industry.
Also in attendance, but not speaking was Rachael Colley, a “field director”, for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) public relations campaign of Energy-In-Depth (EID). Was EID behind the room packing?
Whether EID packed the room or it was the work of someone else, Covert New York now has the attention of the natural gas industry, and EID put up a hit piece about the meeting. In fact, EID has also included videos, and has done a number of other hit pieces.
Colley’s hit piece fudges a bit, and claims about 40 people were in attendance, with 60% favoring gas drilling and 40% opposing. The room seats 70 comfortably, it was full and as mentioned more people standing and spilling out into the hallway, with more being turned away due to fire code laws regarding maximum number of people allowed in the building.
Colley needs to take some remedial counting classes.
Colley’s own video of the meeting clearly shows people standing in the hall.
Colley’s Hit Piece entitled Another Circus on the Natural Gas Circuit stated:
The big surprise of the night was when Jordan DePue spoke. DePue lives in Pennsylvania, has natural gas wells on his family’s farm, and has managed to secure a good job because of the natural gas industry. He set the town straight using his personal experience. He talked about his family farm and how he feels about natural gas after experiencing it himself, as well as the exportation of natural gas.
I’m unsure why it should be a big surprise to Colley. Jordon DePue is employed by Weatherford International, one of the largest global providers of products and services that span the drilling, evaluation, completion, production and intervention cycles of oil and natural gas wells.
Jordon DePue is also the son of Shelly DePue, the star of IPAA/EID’s infomercial called “Truthland”. Truthland was supposed to be the natural gas industry’s rebuttal to Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland.
As a side note – if you do happen to watch Truthland, count how many gas well pads are actually shown, excluding the opening title segment.
The 3 minute rule was also broken, Bruce Austic of Austic farms, one of the biggest landowners in the area, and very much in favor of natural gas drilling (especially on his land) was allowed 9 minutes, with no interruption or reminder of 3 minute limit from the town board.
Austic’s 9 minute speech was rooted in “it’s my land and you can’t tell me what to do with it”. Problem is, when it comes to natural gas industrialization, the entire town will be affected. Air and water can’t read maps. Any spills, leaks, blowouts, pollution and harmful emissions do not suddenly go “WHOA, stop here at the fenceline”.
Sean Dembrosky, a small Covert farmer offered up this rebuttal to Austic: (emphasis added)
This is not a question of someone having the right to raise apples on their land if they please. Of someone choosing to have some livestock to sell eggs or dairy or meat from. Of a person having the right to have tourists come look at their view or enjoy their wine or dining experience. This is a question of whether people in our community have the right to use resources that belong to ALL of us to make a profit for just themselves. This is a question of whether people in our community have the right to put the burden of extremely grave potential hazards for such activity on the shoulders of EVERYONE in the community.
I believe everyone has the right to do with their own land what they please. People resisting fracking are not resisting peoples right to do with their land what they please. This is a question of whether people have the right to do what they please with EVERYONES water, air, roads, and long term safety of the land. The answer should resoundingly be NO. No one should be able to profit from the direct or indirect risk to the safety of others or the community they live in. No one. This is not about freedom of choice or liberty or pursuit of happiness, fracking is about greed, at others expense.
One of the charges often flung at people against natural gas industrialization of their communities has been “you’re against it because you aren’t going to make any money from it”. These types of charges shine a huge spot light on the emphasis on profits over people.
SHAKING UP THE TOWN OF COVERT
Covert has the attention of the natural gas industry, their public relations campaigns, and probably more than a few of the front and Astroturf groups. Not to be outdone by the CCC, the industry is putting on their own presentations.
Prior to all of this, if you recall, CCC had proposed the creation of a partnership with the town, and that was summarily rejected. Repeated attempts by CCC to create the partnership were ignored.
In April, 2013, Bruce Austic of Austic farms, hosted a “community information meeting” at his farm.
A half-page ad in the Pennysaver listed Brayton Foster and Tom Shepstone as speakers. Mr. Foster, owner of Kingtown Orchards, is a geologist and well supervisor in the industry. He is considered a resident expert on the topic of hydraulic fracturing by the Covert Town Board, and is a former supervisor of the town. A handful of the approximately 100 attendees had driven up from Pennsylvania when they heard that Mr. Shepstone of Energy In Depth also would be speaking.
Also entering the mix, is the whispered threats of lawsuits, specifically the natural gas industry suing the town of Covert if a ban is enacted. This is supposedly the reason the town board is against the ban. JLCNY has threatened more than one community with lawsuits.
It’s a weak reason now that the New York State Appellate Court upheld the use of zoning laws to ban gas drilling.
FEW FRINGES OR MORE?
The natural gas industry and their supporters frequently use terms like tree-huggers, enviro-leftists, fringeys, and ‘antis’ to describe groups like the one in Covert, NY. Is it really a “fringe movement”?
In 2011, Tish Conoly-Schuller, keynote speaker “Enhancing Shale Oil & Gas Development Strategies” conference in Denver, Colorado said the movement is MAINSTREAM.
“We have sources we are comfortable with,” she said, “and they reinforce our views. We need to go beyond that, even if it makes our blood boil, so we can learn the language used by our opposition and learn what they think. These nuts make up about 90 percent of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
The international risk assessment firm of Control Risks issued a report late in 2012 calling it the GLOBAL Anti-Fracking Movement.
Call it Global, mainstream or “fringey”, these formal and informal groups are making a difference.
Does this worry the natural gas industry? Yes, which is why so much money is being spent by the industry, their front groups, and financial backers in states like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. This is why public relation campaigns like Energy-in-Depth bring in people to pack town meetings, and astroturf groups like Joint Landowners Coalition of New York threaten towns with lawsuits.
The last thing they want is for the people to determine the future of their own communities. The movement is gaining strength and the industry is afraid.
GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE
With the majority of Covert residents’ repeated requests to the town board being rebuffed and ignored and the natural gas industry holding the local government enthralled, it is now time to remind people about a little thing called democracy and representative government.
The town supervisor, Michael Reynolds, and two councilmen are up for re-election in November. As with most small towns, incumbent candidates usually run unopposed and are re-elected time and time again.
Not this year. Covert residents are putting up candidates who will represent the people’s interests.
Come November, when someone asks “what does democracy look like”, show them Covert New York.
© 2012 by Dory Hippauf