The Ohio Environmental Council on Monday called for sweeping changes to upgrade Ohio’s laws on drilling natural gas and oil wells.
The statewide eco-group said it was pushing 32 provisions, contending that Ohioans are not adequately protected from the risks of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The proposal is designed to improve environmental safeguards, boost enforcement and strengthen protections for property owners, the environmental council said.
The eco-group is seeking comments from the public and the drilling industry on what it is calling the Safeguarding Appalachian Families with Environmental Regulation of Gas and Shale (SAFER GAS) Act.
Earlier efforts to tighten Ohio’s rules didn’t go far enough, and gaps are found in existing rules, group spokesman Trent Dougherty said Monday.
Among the key provisions of the proposed bill are:
• Imposing a 5 percent tax rate for the Ohio severance on oil and gas, with all of that money going to increased drilling inspection and enforcement, capping abandoned orphan wells and addressing local impacts.
• Adopting stricter air pollution controls on all aspects of drilling and requiring the capture of escaping methane.
• Giving local landowners the right to challenge the terms and conditions state regulators often place on drilling. Dougherty said this proposal is the most important in the package because existing law gives drillers an unfair advantage that no other industry enjoys in Ohio.
The proposal drew a chilly response from the Ohio drilling industry.
“It’s a complete rehash of issues apparently not resolved to their satisfaction or issues they would like to see brought up ... in a laundry list that rational minds do not want to approve,” said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, an industry group based in Granville.
The eco-group’s goal appears to be “to frustrate oil and gas development, not to protect public health and safety,” he said.
Allowing neighbors to have a voice in permitting wells would be a move toward “mob rule” and should not be permitted, Stewart said.
His group remains strongly opposed to increasing Ohio’s severance tax and “nothing the OEC is going to say is likely to change our minds on that,” he said.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said that “through bipartisan legislative action and the rule-making process, Ohio’s oil and gas laws have been updated multiple times and are now regarded as some of the most comprehensive in the nation. ODNR and Ohio EPA continuously review the state’s regulatory laws and welcome input as part of that process.”
In an unusual move, the eco-group released its proposal even though there is no bill or legislative sponsor, said spokesman Jack Shaner in a teleconference.
“The oil and gas industry is poised to cash in the claims it’s staked in eastern Ohio,” said Dougherty, the environmental council’s staff attorney.
“Meanwhile, Ohio law continues to leave its citizens, landowners and air and water vulnerable to government inattention, industry exploitation and environmental contamination. The law should protect the well-being of ordinary citizens first, and the oil and gas industry and its investors second,” he said in a statement.
“Health and safety is job one, and we need to get those protections right,” Dougherty said.
Other provisions contained within what the OEC calls its megabill include:
• Giving ODNR oversight to deal with all aspects of fracking wastewater.
• Establishing safer definitions of radioactive waste from drilling and improved policies for dealing with that waste.
• Allowing local communities to propose to the ODNR locations of environmentally sensitive areas that should not be drilled.
• Increasing state penalties to assure that violators do not benefit financially by breaking the law.
• Imposing a “Scarlet Letter” provision that would ban flagrant, repeat or criminal offenders from continuing to operate in Ohio.
• Increasing the number of state inspections and inspectors.
• Increasing public participation in the permitting process and increasing the right to appeal.
• Revising the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission.
• Allowing citizen-initiated rule-making to allow future rules changes.
• Increasing regulation and oversight of landmen who arrange leases between drillers and landowners.
• Allowing those who signed drilling leases to audit driller’s financial records to assure proper payment.
The OEC proposal does not address injection wells for drilling wastes or the question of local control. The Ohio Legislature is looking at injection wells that have been blamed for earthquakes in Youngstown. The Ohio Supreme Court is dealing with a case from Munroe Falls on whether local communities have any say in drilling. At present, all control rests with the state.
For information, go to www.theoec.org.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.