COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Supreme Court justices vigorously challenged attorneys on Wednesday over the power of state-level oil and gas drilling regulations to supersede local zoning laws.
One justice asked whether Ohio's regulatory scheme violates communities' constitutional home rule protections, while another said an inability for cities to challenge state-issued drilling permits gives Ohio's natural resources director seemingly god-like sway.
The questioning came in a case brought by the Akron suburb of Munroe Falls against Beck Energy Corp. The lawsuit is being closely monitored by both pro- and anti-drilling forces for its potential impact on community efforts to block hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used by the industry to capture gas or oil from underground shale. A court decision is expected in a few months.
The energy company in this case received a state-required permit from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 2011 to drill a traditional well on private property in Munroe Falls. The city sued, saying the company illegally sidestepped local ordinances by not involving the city in the process.
Deputy Solicitor Peter Glenn-Applegate, the state's attorney, told the court Ohio's natural resources director was empowered in 2004 to regulate drilling and that a permit can't be gained without meeting established setbacks, fencing and other siting requirements.
He and Beck's attorney, John Keller, argued that state lawmakers made the decision to centralize authority over drilling at the state level after a period of decades when local governments were in charge.
"That was a conscious decision by the General Assembly to eliminate the dual regulation as to the location of wells," Keller said.
Justice Paul Pfeifer drew a distinction between that process and the locating of windmills, which goes through a commission. "For those who object there's no place to go. ... The director of natural resources is God in this case," he said.
Glenn-Applegate said although Ohio citizens can't directly challenge drilling permits issued by the state, they have a remedy through the courts if they feel the natural resources director failed to adequately protect public health and safety.