The Fracking Fight
Despite giving America the lead in global energy production, on November 5, one town in Ohio and three in Colorado, passed ballot measures designed to ban or temporarily halt hydraulic fracturing—often referred to as “fracking.” A fourth Colorado town awaits a recount. Initial election results showed the moratorium in Broomfield, Co—failed by 13 votes. However, on November 13, after all the outstanding ballots were counted, it had passed by 17 votes. A margin of less than 0.5 percent triggers an automatic recount—leaving the final outcome currently unknown. In Bowling Green and Youngstown, Ohio, the opposite happened. Similar proposed bans against fracking were defeated.
Of the four votes in Colorado, Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) calls the Boulder and Lafayette votes merely “symbolic,” and noted that “Lafayette’s last new well permit was in the early 1990s and Boulder’s last oil and gas well was plugged in 1999.”
However, Fort Collins, CO, is near the promising production of the Niobrara shale. The Fort Collins city council passed a resolution encouraging voters to reject the proposed moratorium. And, in Broomfield, the city council, in August, entered into a memorandum of understanding that would allow energy company Sovereign to drill 21 wells—as long as stringent standards are met. In these cities, these five-year bans will bite.
In Ohio, the Oberlin ban is, likewise, “symbolic,” as Oberlin, a college town, has no drilling plans. Bowling Green, which rejected the ban, also has no drilling plans. However, in the Mahoning Valley where Youngstown is located, there is current oil-and-gas activity. In Youngstown, which is a depressed former steel town, residents have twice voted down a fracking ban. The Akron Beacon Journal reports: “the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396 spent more than $74,000 trying to defeat the amendment. The union called it a job-killer.” Supporters of the ban claim “the loss can be explained by voters who are hard up for the jobs energy development brings.” (Note: “energy development” does bring jobs.)
Within the past year, Longmont, CO, became the first town in the state to ban fracking and Mora County, NM, became the first county in the U.S. to ban the “extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons.”
Because fracking is governed by the states, the bans put cities and counties at odds with state—and even federal—laws. According to a New York Times (NYT) article written at the time of Longmont’s fracking ban passage (November 2012), Colorado’s Democrat Governor, John W. Hickenlooper, warned residents of a lawsuit from the state and insisted that only the state has “the authority to regulate drilling.” In July 2013, his administration joined COGA in a lawsuit to overturn Longmont’s fracking ban.
Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources also, according to RC 1509, has the “sole and exclusive authority to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations within the state …” A recent lawsuit in Ohio challenged the idea of “preemption.” The City of Munroe Falls argued “home-rule” authority to regulate gas-drilling operations and won the case in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas, but was reversed by the Ninth District Court of Appeals in what has been described as a “knock-out punch.” The case will now go before the Ohio State Supreme Court with a decision expected this spring.
In New Mexico, where a lawsuit was filed, on November 11 against the Mora County drilling ban, the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, along with one individual and two New Mexico land-owners, argue that Mora County’s ordinance violates their rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as corresponding rights under the New Mexico Constitution. The suit alleges that the Commission lacks authority to pass this unconstitutional ordinance that impacts property rights, due process, and First Amendment rights.
In 1978, New Mexico passed the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act, which created the Oil Conservation Commission and Oil Conservation Division, which are vested with complete “jurisdiction, authority and control” regarding the development of oil or gas. The Division regulates oil-and-natural gas activity within the State so as to protect, among other things, fresh water, public health, safety, and the environment, and issues rules for “safety procedures for drilling and production of oil and gas wells.”
Unlike the Colorado lawsuits, the suit against Mora Country, has not, to date, been joined by New Mexico government.
All of these fracking and drilling bans and/or moratoria are part of an attempted national movement led by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has drafted model legislation for communities—such as Mora County, NM; Oberlin, OH; and Lafayette, CO—known as the Community Bill of Rights.
The “symbolic” votes in communities with no oil-and-gas development are part of a strategy to target left-leaning constituencies where ordinances can be passed and momentum can be built. Addressing the approach, former Colorado State House Representative, B.J. Nikkel observed: “As the debate moves from places like Boulder and Lafayette—which come with highly Democratic constituencies—to purple Colorado, you’re going to see a different outcome.”
Russell Mendell, statewide director for Frack Free Colorado, has declared: “This is the point in history where communities need to decide if they want to stay addicted to hydrocarbons and fossil fuels or move toward sustainable energy.” In response, many have proposed that if communities with potential oil-and-gas development choose to ban it, they should truly break their so-called hydrocarbon addiction and quit using oil and gas.
The fracking fight will be fought in the court of public opinion, as much as it will be in state and federal courtrooms. Though environmental groups have declared victory in this round, the fight is far from over. Earlier this year, Democratic Governor, Jerry Brown of California, signed a law that specifically allows fracking. Across the country, people—from Youngstown, OH, to California’s Governor Brown—understand that “energy development” brings jobs and economic growth. They understand that energy makes America great.
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