New York law shields park from gas drilling

By BRIAN NEARING
Albany Times Union

ALLEGANY STATE PARK, N.Y. – New York state is moving to protect its largest park from natural gas drilling by trying to clean up – and in some cases, extinguish – a legal tangle of private drilling rights, some dating back more than a century.

A new state law requires underground drilling rights occupying more than half of the 60,000-acre Allegany State Park revert to the state unless owners present legal claims within the next two years. It was signed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The measure is similar to mineral rights reversion laws in Indiana, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, and more than a dozen other states. It will allow New York to regain unclaimed drilling rights, as well as evaluate claims from owners who present them.

The state is taking the step after a Buffalo, N.Y.-based U.S. Energy Development Corp. in 2008 wanted to drill five test wells in the park using natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, and claimed to control drilling rights for about 3,000 acres.

The state challenged the validity of claims offered by U.S. Energy and the project never moved forward.

Bill Albert, a spokesman for U.S. Energy, said the company remains interested in drilling in the park. He said the company leases, rather than owns, drilling rights, so it will be up to private owners to make claims to the state.

Cuomo also signed a law that gives the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation the authority to review any proposed drilling in the park, which is located about 60 miles southeast of Buffalo and attracts more than 1.8 million visitors annually.

The laws were welcomed by Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

“Governor Cuomo is helping to ensure that this majestic park will not suffer the kind of degradation that can be seen just across the border in Allegheny National Forest,” he said. “In Pennsylvania, thousands of trees have been cut and hundreds of miles of drill-pad access roads have been built on steep slopes, resulting in severe soil erosion and siltation of once-pristine streams.’’

James Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, a lobbying group for the drilling industry, said his group had no position on the new law.

The wrangle over drilling rights in Allegany has simmered for decades since the state bought the park’s first 7,000 acres in 1921. To get land quickly and inexpensively, the state decided to buy surface ownership only and leave mineral rights for later.

A 1995 draft parks agency report on Allegany spells out the problem: “These rights can be exercised at any time. … The tracts involved … are spread almost like a ‘crazy quilt’ throughout the entire park, with some sections showing several layers of ownership. … This could represent serious present and future problems for the park, for the agency and for the public.”

The 1995 report notes that private owners apparently even own drilling rights around the park’s classic Tudor-style administration building in the Red House Lake area, as well as in the swimming beach in the Quaker section and the iconic Thunder Rocks area, which is strewn with massive rock formations.

bnearing@timesunion.com