The Ohio Environmental Council this week unleashed a complex, 32-point proposal for upgrading the state’s laws on drilling oil and gas wells. With activity increasing, the group wants to spark more debate on the controversial practice of horizontal fracturing, which uses water, chemicals and sand to blast open deep shale formations.
It is unrealistic to think the package will quickly gain sponsors and be drafted into a single piece of legislation. Just last year, the legislature overhauled oil and gas drilling regulations, and the industry immediately dismissed the environmental group’s proposal as “a complete rehash.”
Still, the priorities in the proposal are sound. Fracking is a heavy duty, industrial process in which serious mistakes can mean long-term harmful effects on the environment and human health.
Giving local landowners the right to challenge the conditions imposed by the state Department of Natural Resources on drilling is the group’s top priority, and rightly so. No appeals process now exists, and state law gives total control over drilling to the state. With local governments shut out of the process, landowners deserve a voice.
Another key area is making sure that wells are closely monitored, preventing accidents from happening in the first place. Under Gov. John Kasich, the number of inspectors has increased. What the Ohio Environmental Council has in mind is a modest increase in the state’s severance taxes, to 5 percent, to provide proper funding for more inspectors. Money from the severance taxes, the group rightly suggests, also should go to communities to help them cope with the fallout from drilling.
Also worthy of action are protections against fraud for property owners who sign leases to allow drilling. This is backed by Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, who notes his office now has no authority to pursue complaints. Stricter air pollution controls already are being examined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but a national solution is some two years away, at least. Whether national or statewide in scope, tighter controls make sense. The environmental benefits of burning natural gas are an illusion if the wells release too much methane and benzene.