December 19, 2014

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Oberlin fracking ban to appear on ballot

OBERLIN — City residents are taking a stand against oil and gas exploration with a Community Bill of Rights designed to ban hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, in the city.

The petition, signed by 445 Oberlin residents, was declared valid by the city’s finance director, and it was approved during Oberlin’s City Council meeting Monday to appear on November’s ballot.

According to the initiative, the Community Bill of Rights would “ban the extraction of gas and oil, along with associated activities, including the disposal of associated wastes, into injection wells within the city and its jurisdiction …”

The city would be responsible for enforcing the ban, according to the Bill of Rights. A person or organization that violates the ordinance would be found guilty of a criminal offense and, upon conviction, “shall be sentenced to pay the maximum fine allowable under State law for that violation, and shall be imprisoned to the extent allowed by law.”

Oberlin resident Sam Rubin, who is pushing the Bill of Rights, said, if the initiative is passed, residents will also be able to sue oil and gas companies though an action in equity, such as an injunction, as opposed to suing for damages.

Rubin said it is unknown whether the initiative will effectively curb fracking in the city, but the group has the support of the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund, who will provide legal backing.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their environment, agriculture, the economy and quality of life, according to the organization’s website.

Rubin said residents have an obligation to protect their environment, and that is what led him and a small group of Oberlin residents to circulate the petition.
“This ordinance is a chance for Oberlin to re-assert its democracy,” he said.

The Rev. Steve Hammond of Peace Community Church was one of five designated committee members to represent the petitioners. Hammond said he jumped on board because he was concerned about oil drilling that is occurring in nearby communities.

“We can’t do anything to prevent that from happening here,” he said. “I’m concerned about the environmental impacts of fracking itself and what it’s doing to the water and the air.”
Oberlin isn’t the first city to pursue such legislation to ban oil and gas exploration.

Broadview Heights effectively passed a similar Community Bill of Rights in November to ban shale gas drilling and related activities, and a charter amendment was adopted by voters in Mansfield to prohibit injection wells without written city approval.

Broadview Heights is the first municipality in the state to include a local Bill of Rights in the city charter and to prohibit all new shale gas drilling, fracking and injection wells. The village of Yellow Springs became the first community in Ohio to adopt a local law asserting “the rights of residents to clean air and water and to protect the rights of nature,” according to a news release from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Broadview Heights Law Director Vince Ruffa has spoken out against the Community Bill of Rights, however, saying that the city didn’t have the authority to regulate drilling. Ruffa could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Oberlin Law Director Jon Clark is also skeptical that such an initiative will work.

“I do not feel that Oberlin, or any other city government, can enforce it,” he said.

Clark said a portion of the Community Bill of Rights, which deals with enforcement of the fracking ban, conflicts with state law that requires “uniform statewide regulation” of oil and gas activities by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Clark cited a case in which the 9th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling that the city of Munroe Falls could order Beck Energy Corp. to cease excavation and drilling work on a piece of leased property because the company violated 11 local ordinances and failed to obtain mandatory permits from the city.

The appellate court held that the city cannot enforce its “home rule” drilling ordinances because they directly conflict with the state’s drilling statutes, which are general laws of uniform application.

The court held that Munroe Falls “cannot enforce these rights-of-way ordinances in a way that discriminates against, unfairly impedes, or obstructs oil and gas activities and operations.”
Clark said, although he doesn’t think the initiative is enforceable, he doesn’t believe that Oberlin is suitable for oil drilling.

“I don’t think Oberlin is ripe for any type of fracking,” he said.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123
or cmiller@chroniclet.com.