Wayne commissioners join fracking suit

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 1/28/21

HONESDALE, PA — In a rare 2-1 vote, the Wayne County Commissioners approved a motion at their most recent meeting to join the county’s Sen. Lisa Baker (PA-20) and other state Republicans …

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Wayne commissioners join fracking suit

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HONESDALE, PA — In a rare 2-1 vote, the Wayne County Commissioners approved a motion at their January 28 meeting to join state Republicans in challenging the Delaware River Basin Commission’s (DRBC) moratorium on fracking.

Originally filed by Wayne County’s Lisa Baker (PA-20), Sen. Gene Yaw (PA-23), the PA Senate Republican Caucus and Damascus Township earlier this month, the suit alleges that by not allowing companies to pursue natural gas extraction from the Delaware River Basin through hydraulic fracturing—known commonly as “fracking”—the DRBC has overstepped its regulatory authority while usurping legislative authority from the state’s lawmakers. The suit also alleges that the fracking moratorium effectively constitutes taking private property rights away from landowners in Wayne County without proper compensation.

Fracking is a contentious issue. Its opponents fear what impact fracking would have on the Delaware River’s water quality, among other health and safety concerns. Beyond that, environmentalists point to the climate crisis and oppose the extraction of natural gas, which can leak methane—a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Proponents, on the other hand, maintain that, on the whole, the evidence bears out that fracking is a safe practice. They also argue that natural gas lowers emissions because, when combusted, it emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon than coal. Most relevant to this new lawsuit, fracking can result in a big payday to landowners, who have the rights to any minerals below their property—not to mention lower energy and electricity prices.

Chairman Brian Smith and commissioner Joe Adams both voted to join the legal action as a plaintiff. Commissioner Jocelyn Cramer, the lone Democrat on the board, cast the only opposing vote.

Chairman Brian Smith echoed the language of the original legal filing, adding that he believed it had “merit.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in and around this issue: conversations with past boards of commissioners; conversations with community members, landowners, farmers, the DRBC [itself],” he said. “When you have something of value taken from you, there needs to be compensation; I firmly believe in that.”

The DRBC’s de facto moratorium on fracking has been in place since 2010. Despite numerous lawsuits challenging it from politicians and the natural gas industry, and pressure from environmental organizations to institute a permanent fracking ban, the DRBC has yet to adopt official rules and regulations on fracking in either party’s favor. Adams said that for him, the issue was first and foremost about property rights “and nothing else.”

“It’s about property rights, and it’s about an organization that’s a non-elected body taking property rights without compensation,” he said. “It’s also about the [DRBC] usurping legislative representation powers away from our elected officials.”

The suit has been condemned by the region’s environmental advocacy groups almost immediately upon its filing.

“It is very disappointing to see the county commissioners willing to sacrifice their community, our river and environment to the fracking industry. Among those that will be hardest hit if fracking advances in the watershed are the residents of Wayne County,” the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s chief executive officer Maya van Rossum said in an email.

Rossum cited a 2015 study conducted by CNA Analysis and Solutions, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA, which studied the impacts that fracking would have on the Delaware River Basin. Among numerous findings, CNA projected that Wayne and Sullivan counties would see an increase in the emission of nitrogen oxide (NOx), a gas that contributes to smog and acid rain.

“Wayne County (PA) and Sullivan and Delaware counties (NY) could all see greater than a 27 percent increase in NOx emissions under the maximum annual- development scenario,” the study found. “Under the average annual-development scenario, Wayne County could still see a substantial increase in NOx emissions (25 percent) from the shale industry, but NOx contributions from the other counties were all below nine percent.”

On the other side of the argument, the lawsuit has been lauded by natural gas supporters, including Honesdale-based planning and research consultant Tom Shepstone, who writes a pro-fracking blog for the website Natural Gas Now. In one post, Shepstone estimated that the value of land in neighboring Susquehanna County, PA, where fracking is allowed, is about $6,800 per acre, compared to an average of $160 per acre for parcels in northern Wayne County.

Cramer, describing herself as the “environmental commissioner,” voiced her opposition briefly before the vote.

“There are a lot of people who believe that this [fracking] ban is in the best interest of the people of Wayne County and our collective future,” she said. “However, what’s at issue today is this decision: whether we sign onto an existing lawsuit that will proceed with or without us as a plaintiff. It is my opinion that the most responsible choice is not to enter into this litigation, thereby removing any possible liability or expense that may result from this suit or any consequential countersuits.”

Smith said that, at this point, the PA Senate is covering the financial cost of the suit, so the county won’t be paying any legal fees.

“There are some questions going forward whether [the senators] will remain in the suit legally—they were kicked out of a suit once before,” Smith said, referencing an ongoing fracking-related lawsuit between the DRBC and a landowner group in Wayne County, which Baker and Yaw attempted to join as intervenors before ultimately withdrawing their request.

The chairman also responded to Cramer that he, too, is an environmentalist, “a farmer, a steward of the land.” But he said there needs to be a “balance” and that access to energy is essential to the country’s “future.”

“When I see my fellow farmers not being able to capture the cost of what they produce on their property but see that there is a value to their property that they could use to subsidize their operation, to keep their farms going, then I do believe this [legal action] speaks to the taking of what would provide for our future,” he said. “I believe that I am representing Republicans, Democrats and Independents who are the salt of the earth, who work hard to produce food, who work hard to raise their families, who work hard for the future of this county, this state and this great nation.”

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