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High Court hears arguments in Munroe Falls drilling case
Broader issues of home rule and oil and gas regulation are involved 

Tim Rudell
Ohio Supreme Court Justices. The Court will hear oral arguments in the Munroe Falls / Beck Energy case
Courtesy of Ohio Supreme Court
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In The Region:

A century ago, Ohio' constitution was amended to give cities “home rule.” Last decade, the Ohio Legislature took away some of that authority by stripping communities of local control over oil and gas development.  And this week, a legal battle over how far lawmakers could go with that has made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court.  WKSU' Tim Rudell reports.   

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In this corner
Munroe Falls is an Akron suburb. Beck Energy is an oil and gas driller from Ravenna. Beck wants to drill in Monroe Falls and the city is trying to use its ordinances on drilling permits, zoning and right-of-ways to stop them. And THAT, has set off a court fight drawing in dozens of other communities and having statewide implications.

State versus local
Jonathan Entin, of Case-Western Reserve University’s law school: “Actual gas operations affect people right near the wells.  So local governments want to protect their communities, whereas the state is saying, ‘This is such an important matter, and the resource itself does not follow city limits, we need to have one comprehensive system of regulation, and put the authority at the state level.’”

Lawmakers in Columbus
The Legislature did that in 2004 with House Bill 278. And the surge in oil and gas development with the evolution of fracking has made it a much bigger issue since.

To critics, the law was designed just to keeps environmental and other controls out of the way of developers. For backers, H.B. 278 was necessary so a morass of local rules didn’t bog down energy exploration.

The idea
But the bill’s sponsor, then state legislator Tom Neihaus – a Republican from Clermont County Former State Senator Tom Niehaus-- says there was a more practical reason for the bill. “We have a large number of townships and villages and cities all of whom have an interest in the gas and old development, the question is, do any have the expertise to regulate these industries.   My determination and that of my colleagues was that, no, this was a highly technical area and we needed to have the expertise of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.”

Another view
State Rep. Bob Hagan – a Democrat from Mahoning County -- opposed the 2004 law and is pushing a counter measure in the current legislature. “I spoke out against it. State legislator Bob HaganI thought that those individuals that would be impacted directly by gas drilling should have a say so in the decision making process. Now, fast forward, and say to the local governments: ‘Sorry but we’re going to drill where we want, we’re going to have our way with your roads and bridges. I think what we have now is an opportunity to try to rectify that.”

Meanwhile, in court
The Munroe Falls case began in 2011, with the city taking Beck Energy to Summit County Common Pleas Court for drilling without a local permit and ignoring zoning and street ordinances.  The city won. 

Beck appealed and the 9th District Court of Appeals said the city has no permitting authority for drilling — only the state has that. But the city won on enforcing its other ordinances—so long as it doesn’t discriminate against drillers.  Both Munroe Falls and Beck were unhappy with the decisions and asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case.

More than meets the eye
But, professor Entin says the points to be argued Wednesday morning are really surface waves on a deeper current of debate. “Whatever the Ohio Supreme Court Decides will not be the last word. I think this is a big, complicated set of issues, people feel very strongly about those issues, and they will proceed from the court’s decision to figure out what is the best way to keep their side of the argument going forward with the best chance for success down the road.”Ohio Supreme Court

Entin talked about what some of those “ways” might be. “If Monroe Falls wins on the drilling-permit issue, a lot of other communities are going to be tempted to adopt similar measures. If they lose on the big issue, but they win on the right of way regulation, the battle may move in that direction.  And, of course, if the Court says that the State can do everything, that it has all the cards here, then the way to change that, presumably, would be to change the Legislature.”

Both sides are supported
by dozens of interested parties.  Backers of Munroe Falls range from cities like Broadview Heights, Euclid and Mansfield to Sticky Pete’s Maple Syrup Farm.  On the Beck side there are: the city of Heath, the Chambers of Commerce of Canton and of Ohio, as well as companies, unions and trade associations. 

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