Opinions Split On Impact Of SUPCO Ruling Barring Local Fracking Bans
The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision that local communities can’t use zoning ordinances to keep out oil and gas drillers has communities, activists and lobbyists speculating on what it might mean for the future. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.
The court split 4-3, saying Munroe Falls in Summit County couldn’t block Beck Energy from drilling on a residential property with permission of the owner and a permit from the Department of Natural Resources. The majority ruled that state law bans local communities from passing ordinances specifically aimed at obstructing drilling activities. Bans have passed in several communities, including Athens, Broadview Heights in suburban Cleveland, Mansfield, Oberlin and Yellow Springs. Chief among the group of organizations approving of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision is the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. Executive vice president Shawn Bennett says the court was correct in deciding that the permitting experts at ODNR are the right ones to decide where drilling should be done – because local officials don’t have the expertise to oversee a complex and technical industry. And Bennett says these local laws prohibiting drilling were pointless anyway.
“Honestly, those bans were obsolete when they were passed – you know, those were, at the most, ceremonial bans. So all this court ruling does is reaffirm what was already in state laws. Those bans, even though they were passed, really weren’t doing anything. All they are is a ceremonial effort.”
But those who are worried about possible detrimental after-effects of drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking don’t see these bans as pointless, but as an essential tool of democracy. Dick McGinn is the coordinator of the Ohio Community Rights Network in Athens County, and worked to pass the ban there. McGinn says this is about the civil rights of residents of communities that don’t want drilling, and taking that position is going to make it hard for the state to continue to fight these local bans.
“If we have to go to court on this, the industry and the state will have to argue that we have no rights. Now that was not a matter for discussion in the Munroe Falls case. It will be in our case.”
The Munroe Falls case involved a permitting process on the local level, which is overridden by the permitting process on the state level. And for that reason, some critics of the decision say they think it’s very narrow, and that the door is open to those who want to make different arguments on local fracking bans. Nathan Johnson is an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council.
“Local governments, particularly cities across the state, should feel somewhat emboldened by this decision and feel strongly about crafting some ordinance language that would allow zoning – though, of course, they’d have to be careful about it, but I think they do have the hint there that they would succeed in court if they go about it properly.”
But those who would go to court will likely face an uphill battle from business groups who support the ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court. Among the groups that filed paperwork in support of the state and the energy industry was the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, which estimates the area has seen $4 billion in economic development from shale in the last five years. Voters there have rejected four previous fracking bans, and chamber spokesman Guy Coviella said he feels the decision will stop a fifth one.
“We’ve fought four charter amendments to the Youngstown chamber based on the possibility that it can be locally controlled. So this ruling supports our position that it should not be on the ballot again – it’s very costly for us to be on the ballot for us.”
And Coviella says his members are residents, so they’re concerned about possible safety issues from fracking, including earthquakes that have been reported in the area. But he says ODNR has been monitoring these issues closely and has been strict in its regulation, and he adds that the chamber is fine with bans on specific types of operations or in specific locations.