Court to Weigh Local Say on Gas

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – A northeast Ohio city tried to impose its own restrictions on oil and natural gas drillers, but courts struck down the measures by noting that permits from the state Department of Natural Resources are all that companies need to operate.

At least three West Virginia cities – New Martinsville, Wellsburg and Morgantown – tried to ban fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, within their boundaries in 2011. However, Mountain State courts quickly ruled the state Department of Environmental Protection had the sole authority to regulate drilling and fracking, thus invalidating any local restrictions.

Now, 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 oil and gas drilling.

“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,” states Munroe Falls attorney Jack Morrison in his court filing. “The dispute in this case is likely to repeat itself many times over.”

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 the 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, however, then overturned most of this decision in February. The court would allow 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. Court documents show that in 2004, the Ohio General Assembly gave the ODNR “sole and exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location and spacing of oil and gas wells.”

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. Morgantown City Council passed a ban on drilling within city limits, but that ban was overturned by a local judge in August 2011.