In 2011, Mary Margaret Rowlands attempted to carve out room for some local control over oil and gas well drilling. The Summit County common pleas judge granted Munroe Falls an injunction, stopping Beck Energy Corp. from drilling on residential property off Munroe Falls Avenue.
Mayor Frank Larson did not want to bring to a permanent halt Beck’s drilling. Rather, the aim was to force compliance with local ordinances that require a drilling permit, zoning certificate, public hearing, performance bond, fees and right-of-way construction permit, the whole process similar to what is required for any construction project.
After a careful reading of state law, the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals last week cast aside almost all of the lower court ruling. Rowlands had reasoned that while the drilling activity itself fell under state control, local residents still had room to regulate a high-impact industrial activity. The appeals court found no such room existed.
Where Rowlands sought middle ground, the appeals court faced more squarely the direct conflict between Munroe Falls’ ordinances and a series of state laws, beginning in 2004, that gave control of drilling and related activities to the state. In such a conflict, state law takes precedence, concluded Mary Jane Trapp, an 11th District appeals judge sitting on assignment. Only local ordinances on rights-of-way can be enforced, as long as they are not applied unfairly to oil and gas drillers.
In the time since Rowlands made her decision, the wide scope of drilling activity in Ohio has become clearer. Trapp’s ruling notes the potential risks, especially to local infrastructure, but correctly concludes that state laws now leave virtually no role for locals to act.
The legal fight between Munroe Falls and Beck Energy thus provides a strong signal that the state has gone too far, creating a regulatory system that slams the door in the face of reasonable concerns raised through local representation.
The state’s oil and gas reserves aren’t going anywhere. There is time to give local governments, and residents, a voice in controlling a disruptive and potentially dangerous practice, within a broad framework of state regulation.