Delaware County to NYC: We want $81.3 billion for gas rights

Above: Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in "Austin Powers," demanding one million dollars -- no, scratch that, 100 billion dollars -- from the governments of the world.

$81.3 billion. That's how much Delaware County officials are demanding in reparations for the loss of potential revenue from gas leasing, if a ban on drilling in and around the New York City watershed holds.

If that sounds like a shocking number, it's supposed to, says Dean Frazier, the county's commissioner on watershed affairs. Delaware County officials know full well the city isn't going to pay up.

"Let's be realistic. The city of New York is not going to capitulate to $80 billion," said Frazier. "The point was to show that there's a large impact."

On Feb. 22, the county Board of Supervisors passed a resolution demanding that New York State and New York City pay out $81.3 billion over 60 years to Delaware County landowners in exchange for their mineral rights. The resolution, which passed 12-4, is embedded below.

Proposed gas drilling regulations by the state Department of Environmental Conservation would ban hydraulic fracturing within 4000 feet of unfiltered watersheds, including New York City's. In addition, the city is seeking a seven-mile buffer around the Delaware and Catskill Aqueducts, a two-mile buffer around its other water tunnels, and a zone between two and seven miles from tunnels in which the city would have to individually approve permits for hydraulic fracturing.

Delaware County's resolution, which was drafted by Frazier and his staff, claims that the restrictions above would put 80 percent of the county -- some 786,000 acres -- off-limits to gas drilling: 503,000 in the watershed itself, 33,000 in the buffer zone around the watershed, and about 250,000 near the city's water tunnels.

A little back-of-the-envelope math reveals that the county is asking for about $103,435.12 for each acre put off-limits to gas drilling by the proposed regulations. Spread out over 60 years, that's about $1,723.92 per acre per year.

The resolution doesn't address this point, but a good chunk of the land in question is owned outright by either the state or by New York City itself. The city owns more than 150,000 acres of land in its upstate watershed, and the state owns more than 200,000.

For their part, officials at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection don't think the state's proposed regulations are a "taking" that would require compensation for landowners. An emailed statement from DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov:

Under New York State law, the City does not believe that landowners would have a successful takings claim based on a ban on high volume hydraulic fracturing in the watershed.

Frazier said that while the proposed gas drilling law probably doesn't meet the legal definition of a "regulatory taking" -- a definition with a very heavy burden of proof for a landowner to meet -- it's unfair to Delaware County residents.

"What's fair is fair, and this is not fair," he said. "All Delaware County has ever asked is to be treated like everybody else in New York State."

Blogger Andy Leahy, who runs the pro-gas-drilling landowner blog NY Shale Gas Now, recently wrote in exasperation about the local media's failure to report on the Delaware County resolution:

Media coverage has been so inattentive to this rural locale, we are not even able to say with certainty whether this resolution has already passed the whole body, or was merely introduced.  There has reportedly been coverage in at least one ironically pay-to-see Catskills outlet (Hancock Herald), a beforehand forecast in one very small organ (The Mountain Eagle), and a partially viewable story in another also ironically pay-walled operation (Catskill Mountain News).

But as of the time of this writing, no widely circulated outlet statewide has yet set down this latest chapter.  How can this be?  How can this be — for a story that so well fits the well-established, afflict-the-comfortable, comfort-the-afflicted, media narrative?  It be, because most Northeastern media are only able to see news angles which run in comfortable, familiar directions. 

Our take, having watched plenty of great local stories unfold without so much as a peep from the statewide media echo chamber, is that there just aren't enough reporters on the ground around here. The Oneonta Daily Star, the only daily news outlet besides ourselves with much interest in Delaware County, laid off its main Delaware County reporter a year ago.

Or it could be that despite the big number, there's not much "there" there. Like most local resolutions on state or national issues, this one is pure political theater.

Below: The full text of the resolution.

Delaware County resolution on gas drilling reparations, Feb. 22, 2012