Ohio Supreme Court strikes down local fracking bans

State authority trumps local attempts to regulate the oil and gas industry, the state Supreme Court ruled

Published February 17, 2015 7:38PM (EST)

     (Calin Tatu/Shutterstock)
(Calin Tatu/Shutterstock)

Local municipalities can't use zoning laws to ban fracking within town lines, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, leaving the power to regulate "all aspects" of oil and gas drilling to the state.

The controversial 4-3 decision centered around the case of Munroe Falls, a suburb of Akron, which in 2011 attempted to use its home rule powers to block a state-granted drilling permit. Other cities, including Athens, Oberlin and Mansfield, passed similar ordinances, now rendered ineffective by the court's decision.

“It’s not about fracking and it’s not about gas wells," Munroe Falls Mayor Frank Larson said of the case. Instead, local officials argue that they should have the authority to enact local regulations, particularly when it concerns the health and safety of their residents.

"The oil and gas industry just wants to pull their trucks in and put a well in and be gone,” Larson added. “I don’t have a problem with wells. ... But I do have a problem with people not following our ordinances.”

The court, however, found that such ordinances conflict with the state's "exclusive authority" over drilling, granted to it under a 2004 law. Attorneys for Beck Energy, which held the Munroe Falls permit, argued that the law's in place "to end the confusion, inefficiency and delays under the earlier patchwork of local ordinances, and to ensure that Ohio's oil and gas resources are developed on a uniform statewide basis."

The issue of local control over drilling activity has been surfacing throughout the country as activists and authorities weigh the NIMBY-esque downsides of fracking, which include a fair amount of disruption along with air pollution, water pollution and other health threats. A similar "home rule" strategy was used to keep frackers out of hundreds of towns before Gov. Andrew Cuomo, late last year, announced his intention to ban the practice entirely -- it was held up by the state Supreme Court in what activists called a "watershed moment" for the anti-fracking movement. Pennsylvania doesn't allow municipalities to ban fracking outright, but its Supreme Court, in 2013, overturned portions of a law that would have allowed state rules to preempt local ordinances, arguing that they violated the state constitution's guaranteed right to "clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment."

The dissenting justices in Ohio's Supreme Court spoke out forcibly against the ruling. "Let's be clear here," Justice William O'Neill wrote in his opinion. "The Ohio General Assembly has created a zookeeper to feed the elephant in the living room. What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive. The oil and gas industry has gotten its way, and local control of drilling-location decisions has been unceremoniously taken away from the citizens of Ohio."

By Lindsay Abrams

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