Court checking in on drilling
ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Utica Shale development could mean billions of dollars worth of development and thousands of jobs for Ohio, but it can also bring air, noise and visual pollution for those living near fracking sites.
In 2004, the Ohio General Assembly gave the state Department of Natural Resources, “sole and exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location and spacing of oil and gas wells.” However, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said the high court will hear an appeal from the city of Munroe Falls in Summit County to determine if local Buckeye State governments have any authority to regulate fracking.
At least three West Virginia cities – New Martinsville, Wellsburg and Morgantown – tried to ban fracking within their boundaries in 2011.
But Mountain State courts quickly ruled the state Department of Environmental Protection had the sole authority to regulate drilling and fracking, thus invalidating such local restrictions.
However, Ohio municipalities and counties may eventually be allowed to regulate fracking, pending the appeal from Munroe Falls. Attorney Barbara Tavaglione represents the People’s Oil and Gas Collaborative of Ohio, which is one of the parties in the case. According to its court filing, this organization is a “grassroots movement focused solely on oil and gas issues in Ohio.”
“Homeowners are finding out the hard way that wells are destroying the beauty, safety and economic value of their neighborhoods,” she said, adding property owners have the right to be free from loud noises caused by large tractor-trailer and drilling rigs, offensive odors or visual “blight.”
Tavaglione acknowledged Utica Shale development could bring as much as $9.6 billion worth of development to Ohio, with as many as 65,000 new jobs. However, she said local governments should have some authority to regulate the process.
According to court documents, Beck Energy Corp. – which also has leaseholdings in Belmont and Monroe counties – received an ODNR permit to drill on private property within the boundaries of Munroe Falls in early 2011.
When drilling began, the city issued a stop-work order and filed a lawsuit. The city said Beck’s activities were illegal because the company did not comply with city ordinances. Among the local requirements were that Beck obtain a city drilling permit; pay an application fee; get a zoning certificate; get right-of-way construction permits and post a performance bond.
ODNR officials sided with Beck, noting the company had all the documentation it needed to proceed once receiving that organization’s permits. However, a Summit County Common Pleas judge later ruled Beck needed to follow the city rules required of all developers, which included paying application fees and acquiring a performance bond.
Ohio’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned most of this decision in February. The court allowed Munroe Falls to enforce its applicable street and road ordinances, but disallowed the other local permitting requirements.
Now, the high court will determine what, if any, authority local governments have over oil and gas drilling in Ohio.
“There are hundreds of cities in the state of Ohio, many of which sit atop the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits that run below the eastern part of the state,” Munroe Falls attorney Jack Morrison states in his court filing. “The dispute in this case is likely to repeat itself many times over.”
Ohio Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms and are elected by a statewide vote. Joining O’Connor on the court are Justice Judith Lanzinger, Justice Sharon Kennedy, Justice Judith French, Justice Paul Pfeifer, Justice Terrence O’Donnell and Justice William O’Neill.
After initially trying to pass fracking bans in 2011, New Martinsville and Wellsburg quickly changed their positions in the face of protest from those who had signed drilling contracts. West Virginia regulators also quickly intervened to ensure they maintained the authority to determine where and when wells are drilled.
Morgantown City Council passed a ban on drilling within city limits, but that ban was overturned by a local judge in August 2011.