On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court held oral argument to determine the scope of Ohio’s constitutional guarantee of municipal “home rule.” The case—brought by the city of Munroe Falls, Ohio against Beck Energy Corp. for violations of its local zoning laws—concerns the constitutionality of Ohio Revised Code § 1509.02, which grants the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) sole authority to regulate oil and gas drilling activities (i.e., activities on the drilling site) within the state. Practically speaking, the question to be decided by the Ohio Supreme Court is whether towns and municipalities can—through their local zoning ordinances—impose requirements or conditions on drillers beyond those imposed by the ODNR.
Attorneys for Beck Energy and for the State of Ohio urged the court to uphold § 1509.02, arguing that by granting the ODNR “sole and exclusive authority” over drilling activities, including the “location” of oil and gas wells, the statute effectively preempts local zoning laws.
Some justices seemed skeptical of this arrangement. Justice Paul Pfeifer, for example, questioned whether the “citizens of Ohio . . . [should] just rely on there [being] good people at [ODNR]” to determine the proper scope of drilling, rather than having input through their local zoning commissions.
Peter Glenn-Applegate, the attorney for the State, responded that citizens had no need to fear ODNR’s broad authority. “ODNR is absolutely committed to the health and safety of its residents,” he told the court.
“I believe it’s the only department that we’ve held in contempt in my tenure here,” Justice Pfeifer quipped.
The city, on the other hand, argued that “the state statute doesn’t say anything about local zoning,” and that “the home rule amendment [to the Ohio Constitution] gives the power to cities to regulate local zoning.” Thus, the city argued, drillers should be required to satisfy both the ODNR’s requirements and local zoning laws.
The case has drawn a great deal of attention, with a number of other municipalities filing amicus briefs on behalf of Munroe Falls. Likewise, members of the energy industry and local chambers of commerce have lined up support behind Beck Energy. The State of Ohio has also intervened on Beck’s behalf to defend the constitutionality of § 1509.02.
The court will likely render a decision sometime in mid-2014.