On May 2, 2013, the Third Department of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, upheld a municipal zoning ordinance banning “all activities related to the exploration for, and the production or storage of, natural gas and petroleum,” in the case of Norse Energy Corporation USA v. Town of Dryden.
The Town of Dryden passed the ordinance in 2011 amid concerns about the environmental impact of high volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the Marcellus Shale. The ordinance was challenged by Anschutz Exploration Corporation, an oil and gas exploration company that owned leases covering approximately 22,200 acres of land in the Town of Dryden. Anschutz – which later assigned its interest in the leases to Norse, the appellant in the case – argued that Dryden’s ordinance was preempted by a provision of New York’s Oil, Gas, and Solution Mining Law (the “OGSML”), which states that the OGSML supersedes “all local laws or ordinances relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries . . . .” New York Environmental Conservation Law 23-0303(2). Anschutz (and later Norse) argued that this preemption clause prevents municipalities from using their zoning powers to ban fracking within their borders, while Dryden argued that the zoning provision was not the type of regulation targeted for preemption by the OGSML.
Since the OGSML does not define what it means by “regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries”, the court in Norse Energy Corporation examined the legislative history of the law in order to determine whether the Town’s zoning ordinance fell within the ambit of the preemption clause. The court ultimately concluded that the OGSML was aimed at “insur[ing] uniform statewide standards and procedures with respect to the technical operational activities of the oil, gas and mining industries”, and not to regulate where those activities could take place. Hence the OGSML would preempt a local law that attempted to regulate the actual operation of a natural gas well, but, the court held, it did not “usurp the authority traditionally delegated to municipalities to establish permissible and prohibited uses of land within their jurisdictions.”
This decision has important implications for fracking in New York State. According to Earthjustice, an environmental group involved in the litigation, over 150 municipalities in New York have passed zoning ordinances banning or restricting fracking within their borders; in fact, a similar ordinance passed by the town of Middlefield was upheld by the same court on the same day. Another group, FracTracker, has compiled a table of municipal zoning actions on fracking in New York state, showing 55 bans and 105 moratoria on fracking, as well as several municipalities that have passed resolutions in favor of fracking. The Norse Energy Corporation decision could encourage other municipalities to pass their own zoning resolutions restricting or banning fracking within their borders.
For more information about hydraulic fracturing and zoning matters, please contact Steve Barshov.