While Pennsylvania has a moratorium on new drilling leases in state parks and forests, a controversial new law in Ohio requires state agencies to lease land for gas drilling.
The law went into effect on April 7 and is designed to accelerate gas drilling under state-owned lands, like state parks.
LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple
State agencies have had the authority to do this since a 2011 law allowed for it, but the difference with this new law is the language. The previous law stated that agencies “may” lease state lands for gas production; the new law says they “shall” lease it.
Sponsors of the bill say they changed the language in response to requests by the gas industry because energy companies were frustrated by the lack of movement on their drilling requests.
Environmental groups sue to prevent “wild west” drilling permits
Four environmental groups filed a lawsuit in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, trying to stop the law from going into effect until the state creates rules to regulate drilling on state lands. Those rules were not created after the 2011 law was passed. The Oil and Gas Land Management Commission recently started that process.
According to attorney Megan Hunter of EarthJustice, the rules could cover how parcels would be put forward for leasing, how the state would decide which leases to grant, and which parcels and bidders to move forward with.
Currently, she said, the law is in effect without rules to govern how drilling applications will be decided.
“And that… process includes a certain number of protections… the commission would have to consider environmental issues, economic issues, impacts to tourism, the current uses of the public lands before they would make a decision on what lease is going to move forward,” Hunter said. “There’s also a requirement that the leases would go to the highest and best bid.”
Without rules in place, Hunter doesn’t think that will necessarily happen. She described it as a “wild west” moment, meaning a time for the worst and most dangerous bids to come forward.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, even before the law was signed by Governor DeWine in January, Encino Energy offered the state the potential of nearly $2 billion to be the first to frack Salt Fork, Ohio’s largest state park. That offer was ultimately rejected.
The Environmental Groups’ Legal Argument
While the environmental groups would like to prevent fracking in state parks altogether, concerned about the environmental impacts it could have, their lawsuit only seeks to stop the state from leasing state-owned lands until rules are in place to regulate it.
When the Ohio House passed this bill, HB 507, last spring, it looked completely different. It was focused on poultry. The Senate added amendments last December, including the provision about gas drilling on state lands, and another that redefines natural gas as green energy.
The lawsuit claims that this violates the Ohio constitution, which only allows one subject per bill. Each bill also is required to have three hearings in both the state Senate and the House.
“Both of those rules are there in the Constitution to ensure a fair legislative process that people can understand so that people can really participate in the legislative process and have their voices heard,” Hunter said. “And that just didn’t happen here.”
She said citizens didn’t get a chance to speak to lawmakers about their concerns before the bill was passed.
“The only provisions that the public gave comment on were the agricultural provisions of the bill,” Hunter said. “There was never a public hearing once the additional language had been added to include the mandatory leasing provision and the green energy provision.”
So far, the environmental groups lost their request for a temporary, immediate halt on the law. A Franklin County judge said there was no evidence to indicate risk of imminent and irreparable harm if the law stands while the court decides on the issues, and noted Governor DeWine said that no leases would be signed in the immediate future.
The court will next consider the constitutional issues in the lawsuit, and whether to put the brakes on this law until rules are in place.