NORTH ROYALTON – The ongoing Cutter Oil saga involving the city is far from over.
On Sept. 25, the city learned the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, on behalf of Richard Simmers, Chief of the Oil and Gas Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, appealed the recent decision of Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye.
That decision, handed down Aug. 28, ruled in favor of the city, affirming that safety, not merely economics, should be considered in mandatory pooling cases.
Assistant Law Director Donna Vozar will be putting together yet another brief for the case, which now moves on to the 10th District Court of Appeals in Franklin County.
Law Director Tom Kelly said the city anticipated this might happen.
“Mrs. Vozar’s instincts were correct. She predicted they would appeal. I look forward to another fine brief largely authored by her,” he said. “We look forward to giving our best effort in the court of appeals. We can’t predict the outcome. In some measure, we have been surprised all along by the success we have had.”
Mayor Bob Stefanik said he is disappointed at news of the appeal.
“This is actually the fifth time we have addressed this now,” the mayor said. “It baffles me the attorney general’s office is continuing to fight this battle. They were told twice now that safety should count for something, should mean something when negotiating a lease. Obviously the attorney general doesn’t believe that or they would have walked away from this case already.”
Lawyers from the attorney general’s office are representing the ODNR chief.
Council President Larry Antoskiewicz feels much the same as Stefanik.
“I think Mr. Simmers is appealing based on the fact they believe they did everything right based on the way the law is written. That they don’t have to regard safety in their decision-making process. I guess we will see what the appeals court says, will they buy into that or will they agree the way Judge Frye ruled, who said safety should be one criteria used and not just economic considerations,” he said.
Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw said he hopes the ODNR and the Ohio General Assembly are paying close attention.
“This case should serve as a reminder to the ODNR that they need to work for the people of Ohio and not the oil and gas industry,” he said. “The fight continues, and I hope that the Ohio General Assembly will pay more attention to this case and do what we have urged them for years to do which is to address the safety concerns that urbanized drilling poses here in northeast Ohio and other parts of our state.”
The city has been battling this issue for more than two years, trying to prevent Cutter Oil from using city land necessary to complete the drilling unit in question in the Planets subdivision. Officials appealed the pooling to the ODNR, which ultimately sided with Cutter supporting its mandatory pooling application, and then appealed that ruling to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission last year, which ruled in North Royalton’s favor back in January, citing that safety should be given more weight in such cases.
Simmers, not Cutter, announced intentions to appeal the commission’s order that same month, which caused city officials to question where the ODNR’s loyalty lies. The dispute then ended up in the Common Pleas Court of Franklin County, where Frye affirmed the Oil and Gas Commission’s ruling in August.
Frye seemed taken aback by Simmers’ argument back in August stating in the ruling, “The Commission ordered the chief not to ignore safety issues particularly when the landowner was a governmental agency. The chief even makes the remarkable argument that ‘the directive to consider safety issues is inconsistent with the notion that the Division has sole and exclusive authority of oil and gas permitting.’ The Commission did not agree with that expansive view of the chief’s authority. Indeed, it would be irrational if the chief ascribed to the legislature the view that public safety is unimportant and only economics counts.”
A timetable for the 10th District Court of Appeals case is not yet known.
The ODNR could not be reached for comment.