Land Grab: Clean Energy Movement Can Leave Communities Divided

No actual drilling has begun in Broome County, yet, said county executive Fiala. Along with a majority of the county's 19 legislators, Fiala supports drilling -- that is, so long as it is done responsibly.

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After a local newspaper ran a story mentioning Fiala's support of drilling she said she got around 400 e-mails. (Broome County has a population of around 200,000.)

"I'd say only about a dozen of those e-mails were negative," Fiala said.

South of Binghamton, which is the largest city in Broome County, the natural gas drilling has begun, in northeastern Pennsylvania. Not all of the activities there would suggest environmental issues are being adequately addressed.

Last fall, Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. was fined $56,650 and part of its operations were suspended by the Department of Environmental Protection because of three chemical spills which polluted a creek and a wetland in Susquehanna County. The accidents were connected to an extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the shale.

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Landowners Welcome Drilling

Despite concerns of water contamination, noise, road damage and other general disruptions, most land owners generally welcome the push for natural gas, said Chris Denton, an attorney in Elmira, New York specializing in negotiating land lease arrangements with energy companies.

"We can't afford not to drill," said Denton, who represents around 5,000 families spread across 300,000 acres. "This area is hurting economically, so a natural gas boom is something to embrace. That said, everyone wants to do everything possible to make sure it doesn't become the Wild West, and that the environment is protected."

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Jim Cruickshank's family has owned hundreds of acres of meadows and forests in Big Indian, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, going back more than a century. He strongly opposes drilling in the area, home to a protected watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water. However, Cruickshank's personal views have not stopped him from getting involved with a local community group, the Catskills Landowners Association, many of whom want drilling and the financial windfall it might bring.

Others in the Catskills are pushing for an outright drilling ban, while New York state authorities debate how rigorous to make pre-drilling environmental testing for energy companies seeking to make a shale play. So far, environmental hurdles have been stringent enough to prompt most energy companies, such as Cabot and Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy, to pursue opportunities in Pennsylvania, where it is easier to get permission to drill.

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The Catskills Landowners Association board, of which Cruickshank is a member, is made up of a spectrum of landowners seeking to band together protect this picturesque valley community while at the same time looking out for their own economic interests. The association is trying to find some way to compensate landowners should drilling not ever take place. Many landowners, Cruickshank said, feel they have paid exorbitant taxes and see gas exploration as long-overdue compensation.

Outright Ban Would Hurt Landowners

An outright ban on drilling, the CLA believes, represents a violation of landowners' rights.

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