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Growing List of Cities Enact Bans on Drilling, Injection Wells

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On Tuesday, Medina City Council will hold a public meeting to discuss whether the city should impose a ban on gas and oil drilling. Medina is the latest of a number of municipalities that are trying to circumvent state power and exert some control over drilling activity within their communities. But according to state law, cities don’t have any ability to enforce such bans. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu reports on the latest tension between cities and the state over local control.

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm

At Cool Beans coffee shop around the corner from Medina City Hall, councilman Bill Lamb sips from a steaming mug as he preps for a meeting with city attorneys. Lamb has spent much of his 30 years in politics advocating policies to preserve the charm and safety of Medina’s neighborhoods. Now that the oil and gas industry is tapping into natural gas deposits around the state, Lamb says he wants the city to be proactive and consider enacting a ban on drilling activity within the city limits.

Lamb: “I think there are a lot of things that we just have to consider. I wouldn’t want to see drilling take place in the parks. My children are all grown up, but I wouldn’t want to see drilling take place on school property.”

Lamb says council will host a series of meetings to weigh the pros and cons before making any decisions. But there’s one problem with any ban city council might pass—they likely won’t have any power to enforce it.

Lamb: “The state took away home rule, the state took away the city’s authority to regulate.”

In 2004, the Ohio legislature passed HB 278, a law that gives the Ohio Department of Natural Resources sole authority to regulate all activities related to oil and gas exploration. That effectively took away cities’ power to say yea or nay to wells within their communities.

Lamb: “I don’t know that there is a justification to take away something that substantial from any municipality and I think that’s the reason many municipalities in the state of Ohio are trying to find some way around what the state did.”

Over the past two years, some thirty municipalities—from Cincinnati to Mansfield—have passed ordinances or resolutions to prohibit drilling both gas and oil-producing wells and injection wells that store drilling waste water. Some of these efforts have been led by city officials themselves, but often there’s a citizens group spearheading the measure—like this one:

O’Dell: “MADION, which stands for mothers against drilling in our neighborhoods.”

As a co-founder of MADION, Tish O’Dell of Broadview Heights has worked to put a stop to drilling in her suburban community, which has ninety wells scattered across its thirteen square miles. The group spend months pushing the issue, but was told the city’s hands were tied.

So, they decided to take a different approach. Rather than seek a city wide ban, they sought a ballot amendment to the city’s charter. And it passed.

O’Dell: “The voters of Broadview Heights, overwhelmingly—three to one—voted in favor that they want this to stop. They don’t want any more wells here.”

Some environmentalists try to frame this as a citizens’ rights issue, saying the potential hazards of the drilling activity violate their right to clean water and clean air. But many legal experts - including Jonathan Entin, a law professor at case Western Reserve university - say that argument probably wouldn’t get far in court.

Entin: “In light of the breadth of HB 278, at the end of the day, if this is a matter within the state’s authority to regulate, then saying that there is this local right won’t pass legal muster under Ohio law.”

Still, Entin says, cities aren’t completely out of luck here. Even though these bans may not have any legal legs right now, if enough cities pass them, he says they may have a bigger political significance.

Entin: “These local measures, although they might not stand up in court, might contribute to that debate by telling people at the state level, hold on, there are some real concerns here, there are some real problems that you need to take into account if you are to develop this resource.”

For its part, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources says the state’s in a better position to regulate this than local governments that lack expertise about drilling. Industry officials agree.

Tom Stewart is President of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

Stewart: “It would be better to have regulatory policy concentrated at the state level instead of having for example a thousand different townships having a thousand different ways of trying to regulate the industry.”

But that’s not stopping cities from trying. And as more cities pass these moratoriums on drilling, some hope legislators in Columbus will perhaps rethink whether the state should have the sole say in how the industry is regulated.

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