NORTH ROYALTON – City officials said they were disappointed to hear the city of Munroe Falls lost its battle for control over oil drilling within its borders in a 4-3 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court last week.
Back in 2013, North Royalton, fighting its own battle against Cutter Oil Company which is attempting to mandatory pool city streets into a drilling unit in the Planets subdivision, gave the law department its blessing to back Munroe Falls in its case.
Munroe Falls vs. Beck Energy Corporation sought to preserve home rule and allow cities to have some authority in where oil and gas wells can go within their own communities. Home rule allows cities to enact laws and regulations as long as they don’t conflict with general state law.
Munroe Falls sued Beck Energy after the company gained a necessary state permit through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 2011 to drill a well on residential property but sidestepped the city’s review process. Munroe Falls officials said in court documents they felt this evaded local ordinances, ordinances meant to protect residents from the potential dangers of fracking and appealed to the top Ohio court.
But, the high court ruled last week that the authority rests solely with the state. The ODNR was given the sole power to license and regulate oil wells back in 2004, so Munroe’s exertion of power was seen as being in conflict with that by justices Judith French, Maureen O’Connor and Sharon Kennedy. Justice Terrence O’Donnell concurred in judgment only.
Justice William O’Neill, one of three dissenting opinions that also included Justices Paul Pfeifer and Judith Lanzinger, had this to say in his official written opinion.
“Let’s be clear here. The Ohio General Assembly has created a zookeeper to feed the elephant in the living room,” O’Neill wrote. “What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive.”
City officials Royalton were hopeful Munroe might win because of a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that granted more home rule back to local municipalities there by allowing them to regulate oil and gas drilling. That high court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to have authority over all gas and oil drilling across that state.
This naturally led some to believe the tide could change here too, that the Munroe Falls case could have been successful and led to a similar outcome for Ohio.
But, where home rule was restored to Pennsylvania municipalities, quite the opposite is happening in Ohio.
“The attack on home rule continues. Cities can regulate where a deck is placed on a person’s property, how high a person’s grass is but not where an oil well is placed? There is something wrong with that,” said Ward 6 Councilman Dan Kasaris. “It is my hope our law director can use the ruling and loopholes in the ruling to the benefit of our city.”
Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw, who chairs council’s safety committee, agrees.
“Yet again the state Supreme Court has hurt our ability as local government to use home rule to pass laws that will protect our own residents from things like urbanized drilling,” he said.
Langshaw agrees strongly with O’Neill’s dissent.
“He is absolutely right in his criticism and should serve as notice to our members in the Ohio General Assembly that the time is now to address these issues and most importantly address it by changing current Ohio law to have safety as major consideration in any new drilling application or permits in urbanized areas like ours,” Langshaw said. “We may have lost this battle but the war continues on with this important issue.”
Ward 4 Councilman Paul Marnecheck was disappointed too and wished the supreme court justices had toured sites personally to really experience what is occurring in regards to urban drilling.
“You have drilling derricks in residential communities. You have residential communities that are basically able to be held hostage by drilling companies,” he said. “The ability to direct a community’s future is no longer only in the hands of elected officials. Building codes and zoning codes are so that when the next generation inherits that land, it hasn’t been destroyed. In 20 years, I hope the four justices that supported this come up to North Royalton and Munroe Falls and see the results of their decision, that in my opinion, is short sighted.”
Mayor Bob Stefanik said the glimmer of hope is that this 4-3 split is a good sign that will open the door to more cases in the future, cases that might bring victory back to communities in their fight to retain home rule.
“I think if anything it has opened the door to future cases,” Stefanik said.
Residents in North Royalton have made it perfectly clear that they do not want drilling here because of the dense population, potential dangers, quality of life and property value concerns.
For nearly two years, city officials have been trying to prevent Cutter Oil from forcing city streets into the drilling unit in the Planets area. Officials appealed to the ODNR, which sided with Cutter, and eventually the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission which ruled in North Royalton’s favor last month. The ruling stating that the ODNR should have more seriously considered the city’s concerns stemming from past safety issues with Cutter wells and not solely focused on the fairness of the lease offer when approving the oil company’s mandatory pooling application.
But, the ODNR, not Cutter, announced intentions to appeal the commission’s order last month, which has caused city officials to question where the ODNR’s loyalty lies. The dispute will now be decided in the Common Pleas Court of Franklin County at some point this year. Both the ODNR and Cutter have refused to comment on this pending case.
Council and the mayor side with residents who are vocal against urban drilling. City officials are not opposed to drilling altogether, what they are opposed to is drilling in urban areas.
“We are not against drilling in Ohio, we are just against drilling in somebody’s back yard that doesn’t want to be part of this process. We are all for energy independence. Companies can drill throughout the state, but you just can’t do that in heavily populated areas. It brings the property values down, and there are always those safety issues. Look at all the incidences that have been reported here in the last four or five years,” Stefanik said. “Urban drilling just isn’t right for a community.”