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Albany Council hears support for ban on hydraulic fracturing

March 20, 2012

by Steve Felano

A group of nine Albany residents paid a visit to city hall Monday night to explain why natural gas exploration, often referred to as hydrofracking, should not be allowed within city limits. Following a brief and peaceful demonstration on Eagle Street, anti-fracking sentiment largely dominated the roughly half hour period set aside by the Albany Common Council for public comment. Each speaker outlined concerns that gas drilling will lead to environmental contamination in their backyard.

Supporters of a citywide ban on hydrofracking gather outside Albany City Hall/Steve Felano

“We could potentially see direct impacts to the water quality in Albany if fracking is permitted, even on the outskirts of the city,” said Siobhan Burke, co-founder of Capital District Against Fracking. “Even if it is unlikely that we would see fracking directly within city limits, we could very well see, for instance, like the potential spillage of waste on county roads.”

Burke and the eight other like-minded Albany residents who added to her statements are seeking passage of an ordinance introduced last year by Ward 1 Common Council memberDominick Calsolaro. The legislation would, through zoning law, prevent natural gas exploration and associated storage, transfer, treatment or disposal activities from taking place in the city.

Calsolaro’s ordinance received the minimum eight votes required for passage this past fall, but was ultimately vetoed by Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings, who said he would like to see decisions on hydrofracking left to organizations like the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The measure was revived after a failed veto override attempt, and a ruling by State Supreme Court Judge Phillip R. Rumsey in late February stating oil and natural gas drilling could be banned by New York municipalities through zoning law. A similar ruling issued last month by State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. involving Otsego County has further emboldened Calsolaro and his supporters.

“Both justices went into the history of the environmental conservation law,” Calsolaro said. “They looked at past suits that had to do with other mining issues…they could not find any language where the state legislature specifically bans or bars a municipality from using their zoning to allow or not allow an activity.”

Calsolaro said these recent State Supreme Court cases could sway the votes of fellow common council members who did not vote in favor of his ordinance when it was first considered. James Sano of Ward 9 chose not to vote on Calsolaro’s proposal this past fall, citing concerns that passing it could pull Albany into a legal battle. Now that State Supreme Court decisions are lending support to the idea of banning hydrofracking through zoning law, Calsolaro is more confident that he can get the votes he needs to pass his ordinance. However, he acknowledged an obstacle to challenging the Mayor of Albany’s veto power.

Albany Common Council members prepare to hear public comments/Steve Felano

“Some people may not want to go against the mayor…we have a strong mayoral form of government in Albany,” Calsolaro said. “He’s a very powerful person. People have to run for re-election. He may threaten people…what most people are really concerned about are primaries. That’s probably the biggest threat that he has out there.”

With Calsolaro acknowledging the political obstacles to passing a citywide ban on hydrofracking in Albany, James Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said such a ban is pointless.

“There is very little chance, if any, that natural gas would ever be harvested in the city of Albany,” Smith said. “It’s not an issue for city residents, and I would think that council members would know that. If I’m an Albany taxpayer I’m wondering why they are wasting their time and my money to fight something that will never occur here.”

Supporters of a ban on hydrofracking in Albany disagree, insisting that natural gas exploration and associated water contamination could occur in and around the city. This is the same argument Calsolaro makes time and again, and he says he’ll bring his ordinance up for a vote when enough common council members are present to pass it.

“I want to make sure I have everyone here,” Calsolaro said. “Then I’ll call for a vote…then it will be in the mayor’s lap again.” -30-

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