Will gas drilling turn any elections?
While there are many issues facing elected officials this year, including in New York the reality of the newly imposed two percent property tax cap and reduced municipal revenues from taxes and other sources, the issue that stands out most is gas drilling: are you for or against, and where do you stand?
For some politicians, the best answer is to say they are neutral, such as Gary Maas the current supervisor in Cochecton, or undecided, such as Tusten supervisor Peg Harrison. For some residents in those towns, those positions have not been acceptable. In both cases, residents have persistently called on their supervisor to take a stand one way or the other.
In past years in Cochecton, Maas, who is running on the Republican, Conservative and Independence lines and has no opponent on the Democratic line, would have likely faced no opponent. But with passions about gas drilling running high, political newcomer Claudine Luschinger has mounted a campaign for Maas’ job on the Rural Heritage line.
In Tusten, Harrison, a Democrat, who is also running on the Conservative line, would have faced a tough challenge from Republican council member Carol Wingert regardless of the gas drilling issue, because the two have faced off on numerous issues in the past two years. Wingert, who is also running on the Independence and Rural Heritage lines, has said that she is opposed to gas drilling.
But in this race, too, the gas drilling issue has produced an unexpected result: another candidate. Andrea Reynosa is running only on the Rural Heritage line, which is generally presumed to be anti-fracking, for a seat on the town council. In answers to questionnaires sent to the candidates by The River Reporter, both Wingert and Reynosa listed gas drilling as one of their top two issues.
The gas drilling issue has been prominent in just about all of the towns in Western Sullivan County. In the Town of Delaware, current council member Republican Ed Sykes, who is running for
supervisor, has said publicly he is in favor of gas drilling if the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation says it can be done safely. His opponent, Stephan Lundgren, running on the Democratic line, says local zoning provisions should be adopted that “regulate, restrict, or prohibit inappropriate and undesirable uses.”
The situation is similar in the Town of Callicoon, with supervisor Tom Bose, running on the Republican, Independence and Conservative lines, questioning whether gas drilling will ever come to the town, but also saying that if the DEC does allow it, the town will protect “not only private property rights, but the health, safety, well-being and quality of life of all of our residents.” His challenger Bruce Ferguson, running on the Democratic and Rural Heritage lines, who has been highly visible as an anti-hydraulic fracturing activist, says that fracking represents one of the “biggest threats to our local economy” and there are better ways to get the gas out of the ground.
In some towns, such as Bethel, gas drilling has become almost a non-issue because every candidate running for the office of supervisor or a seat on the town council has come out against drilling and fracking. Bethel, like the towns of Lumberland, Highland and Tusten, is actively working on a zoning amendment that would limit or ban gas drilling.
Will it make a difference?
With no polls available to track political races at the town level, it’s hard to tell if the gas-drilling issue will spark a discernable reaction among the electorate, but there is at least some indication that the residents of Sullivan County have a position on the issue.
A poll commissioned by Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, of which Ferguson is a prominent member, found that 69% of Sullivan County respondents oppose fracking in their town, while 27% support it, and 69% support zoning rules that would restrict fracking while 24% oppose them.
Critics have questioned the reliability of the poll, but the company that performed it, Pulse Opinion Poll, said in an open letter, “The survey was conducted using an established automated polling methodology. Calls were placed to randomly selected phone numbers through a process that insures appropriate geographic representation.”
Bose questioned the validity of a poll that was spread across the entire county as opposed to one focused in only the towns that are likely to see drilling, which he said are Fremont, Delaware, Callicoon and Cochecton.
Ferguson countered that the county sits above both the Marcellus and Utica shale formations and if shale gas extraction comes, “it will probably proceed eastward across the entire county within a just a few years.” There are signed gas leases in eight of the 15 towns.
Of the 500 county residents who were called for the poll, about nine percent are second home owners, who will most likely not be voting in the election. However, even with that in mind, if the margin against drilling is nearly as wide as reflected, it would not be surprising to see gas drilling having an impact in at least some races.