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The silver lining has been the dialogue the community is having... What are the decisions we want to make?

Tompkins County gets out front on hydrofracking

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Tompkins County, headquartered in progressively-minded Ithaca, has a reputation for being opposed to hydrofracking. In fact, the town of Ithaca was among the first in the state to ban hydrofracking.

But Tompkins County is out front on getting ready for the reality of fracking. Officials are pushing lots of paper as the county gets set for the impacts on the local economy and infrastructure -- as well as the environment. Emma Jacobs reports for the Innovation Trail.

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Here’s what Carol Chock thought about natural gas drilling a year ago: “We’ve gotten involved in this issue as New York state started looking. How do we want to weigh in? And how’s the state going to weigh in on what’s permitted and what’s not? And how it’s done?”

This is Carol Chock today: “I realize now I had no clue how much there was to do.”

Chock works on natural gas issues as a Tompkins County legislator. New York state’s still thinking about how it’s going to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or ‘hydrofracking’ for natural gas.

That’s given Chock time to prepare for widespread drilling. One way she’s preparing is by acquiring lots of paperwork. The paper is flooding one end of her very long dining room table. “This usually goes from here to there and my husband and I just push the papers down to eat,” Chock said.

Most of the paper generated around drilling has been research on its environmental impacts but Chock’s looking at impacts on local economies and infrastructure. So far she and her peers have tackled potential road damage from heavy drilling truck traffic, pressures on rents and emergency management. They have even investigated whether their property tax software can record a gas lease.

Chock and the legislature aren’t alone in facing this massive task. She has a technical advisor when she needs one in the county planning office.

Darby Kiley assists counties by walking them through the incredibly complicated landscape of rules and regulations. “Environmental conservation law is tricky on its own. So the knowledge is definitely gaining but there are a lot of misconceptions about what it’s all about and what the towns can do so we’re trying to set as many people straight as we can,” Kiley said.

A pro-environment endowment, the Park Foundation, funded Kiley’s work to help towns and legislators put strong rules about gas drilling on the books.

Tompkins County is a hotbed of anti-fracking activism but it’s not the only area trying to get its house in order. Lots of towns and counties are trying to identify problems with their own local regulations and prepare for fracking, whether they want to ban it or welcome it.

Megan Thoreau Jacquet works at a government agency advising three southern tier counties on their gas drilling planning. “When you use the world 'regulations,' there’s always a fear behind it in this area,” Jacquet said. “It’s not even related to the energy industry, they just don’t like it.”

Jaquet says she hears concerns that local rules will scare the industry off and also scare off any income that might come with drilling. “But ultimately I don’t really think that’s an issue. I think there are other statements in the media from energy industries that just say make up your mind. If you just tell us what your regulations are, then we can comply with them,” Jacquet said.

Getting those regulations in order is tough even for a county like Tompkins that’s relatively well-off. Tompkins has dealt with budget cuts of its own, according to Tompkins County Legislator Carol Chock.

Chock says the amount of staff hour put into drilling has been a strain and actually makes her jealous of the gas companies.

“The silver lining in all of this has been the dialogue the community is having about what we want for our community,” Chock said. “Whether it be for gas drilling or other activities, what are the decisions we want to make for our town, our village, our road, our way of life?”

The effect of those decisions is unclear.

Tompkins has worked hard to prepare for drilling but the entire game may be about to change. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation recently said that it’s planning to address some of the same community impact issues that Tompkins has been looking at, only on a statewide basis.

That section of the drilling rules will be released in August, when Tompkins County will figure out whether their preparations will hold or if it’s back to the drawing board.

In Syracuse, I'm Emma Jacobs.

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