Anti-fracking protesters demonstrate in front of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City as Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits the hotel for a function on Monday. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
ONEONTA, N.Y. -- If Otsego County were Hollywood, then its debate over hydraulic fracturing, the contentious method of drilling for natural gas, would be resolved as it is in the movie "Promised Land," which opened here last weekend at the Southside Mall.
That is, a good-looking representative of a villainous gas company would dupe the townspeople into selling him their mineral rights, only to repent after deciding that his employer was bad and fracking, as it is known, potentially worse. And this would win him the heart of the prettiest teacher at the local elementary school.
Instead, Otsego people are not following the script.
Natural gas companies have yet to flock to this region at the foot of the Catskills, and truth be told, drilling is more of a distant possibility than an imminent event, since a state decision on whether to allow the process is still pending. But the debate between supporters and critics is so caustic that it is as if rigs were already sinking pipe into every farm and backyard.
On the movie's first day, about 50 people from this area of 21,000 appeared for the four showings, a "good, but not great" turnout, one theater worker said. But they were a magnet for environmentalists who believe that landowners wanting to sell exploration rights to gas companies are bent on despoiling the pristine farms and foothills that ring the town.
"When the gas comes up here, there isn't going to be anything left," said retired farmer Barbara Loeffler, whose pickup is covered with anti-fracking slogans. "I own some land in Pennsylvania, and I've learned some things. If what's going on there comes to this area, that's the end of it."
Dan Mark Sr., a retired environmental health and safety inspector, was one of 15 ticket holders at the first showing of "Promised Land."
"If you look at the movie, it's a feeling people here have had for a long time," he said. "People here want to hold on to what they have. The other side, they want money."
On that other side, Dick Downey, 78, head of a landowner's association, said he would not pay a cent to see "Promised Land," lest the money enrich its backers.
"The evil gas company against the noble environmentalists isn't what's happening," he said. "That's a Hollywood construct. What's really happening is, people up here with land who want to develop it, against people who are quite comfortable and don't want any disturbance. There's a lot of charlatans on the other side. They're not telling the truth a lot of the time."
Truthful or not, the opponents of hydraulic fracturing are winning. Like much of south-central New York, Otsego County sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, a gas-rich sheet of rock that underlies much of the Appalachian Basin. In Pennsylvania, where fracking is already under way, some landowners have made a comfortable living by allowing drilling on their property.
But the critics' case against the process -- that land and groundwater can be poisoned by the chemical cocktail forced into the earth to fracture the shale and free the gas -- is carrying the day. The number of Otsego towns with bans or moratoriums on fracking has risen in just 18 months to nine, from five, including the city of Oneonta and the surrounding town. And the share of the land under lease to gas companies for future exploration has dropped as well.
"Leases have been expiring. A couple of these companies have gone bankrupt, and others have pulled out. So there's a deceleration in activity," said Adrian Kuzminski, moderator at Sustainable Otsego, a social network with several hundred subscribers.
But the movement has not relented. At the Southside Mall, "Promised Land" viewers wore anti-fracking buttons, and windows throughout the town displayed signs warning of fracking's purported environmental consequences. Proponents have responded with homemade placards extolling the virtues of gas: "Let's boost our local economy" and "Support safe drilling and pipelines, jobs."
Despite their critics' accusations, landowners in favor of the process say they are not pawns of the gas industry. Rather, they see drilling bans as an infringement on their property rights, and drilling itself as the economic savior of a region they say is on the skids.
Anna Marie Lusins was for years an Oneonta Town Board member. "I've seen a gradual decline," she said. "Though we've seen an increase in retail space, I see a decline in schools. Our young people are going away. We need the economic development that will come with gas."
Mr. Downey of the Unatego Area Landowners Association said that contrary to critics' assumptions, landowners wanted strict regulation of hydraulic fracturing and stiff punishment for any environmental damage it might cause. Indeed, he said, gas may be the only way to preserve the area's rural nature.
"You have people here who used to farm, and they don't farm now because they can't make a living at it," he said. "The land's been in their family for six, seven generations. They'd love to go back to farming, but they can't. But if they have the money from gas, they can."
Regardless of how likely or remote the chances of victory -- or how close or distant the prospect of an actual well -- neither side has any plans to stop. "We've won the campaign for public opinion," said Mr. Kuzminski, of Sustainable Otsego. "But that's just a battle. It's not the war."