Environmental groups appeal court order on drilling under Ohio park and wildlife areas

Environmental groups appeal court order on drilling under Ohio park and wildlife areas

Four environmental groups filed an appeal Friday challenging an Ohio judge’s order declining to review state regulators’ decisions to allow oil and gas drilling under state park and wildlife areas.

The Notice of Appeal filed with Franklin County Court of Common Pleas takes issue with Judge Jaiza Page’s Feb. 23 order, which said the groups had no right to challenge rulings by the Ohio Oil & Gas Land Management Commission last November to allow drilling and fracking under Salt Fork State Park, Zepernick Wildlife Area and Valley Run Wildlife Area.

“Our appeal continues the fight for legal accountability and oversight of the commission’s decisions,” said Earthjustice attorney Megan Hunter, who is one of the lawyers representing groups in the appeal. Those groups include Save Ohio Parks, the Buckeye Environmental Network, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the Ohio Environmental Council.

The move to drill and frack under state-owned lands was jump-started last year when Gov. Mike DeWine signed HB 507 into law. The statute would have required state agencies to lease lands unless the commission adopted rules and lease terms under a 2011 law. The leasing process under that law had languished after a widespread backlash a decade ago.

Once the commission adopted the rules and lease terms last spring, HB 507 no longer imposed any mandatory duty to allow drilling on state-owned lands. Instead, Ohio law requires the commission to consider nine factors. They include environmental impacts, effects on visitors or users of state-owned lands, economic benefits, public comments, and more.

In this case, the environmental groups claimed the commission didn’t consider all nine factors before reaching its decisions. They also objected to the commission’s failure to hold a hearing and accept public testimony for the proposed parcels at each park and wildlife area. Comments on the proposals detailed worries about possible contamination from accidents, anticipated interference with people’s ability to enjoy state parks and wildlife areas, and other objections.

Judge Page’s ruling rejected the environmental groups’ argument that the commission’s rulings could be appealed under a general statutory provision for “adjudication orders.” Instead, she noted there was no specific statutory language dealing with appeals from the Ohio Oil & Gas Land Management Commission. She also found the groups did not have standing to raise their claims.

Days after Judge Page’s ruling, the commission accepted a bid from Infinity Natural Resources, based in West Virginia, to drill under Salt Fork State Park. The commission also accepted Texas-based Encino Energy’s bids to drill under Zepernick Wildlife Area and Valley Run Wildlife area. Unless blocked, drilling is likely to start this spring.

Without judicial review of the commission’s actions, it’s unclear what checks, if any, exist over the commission’s decisions on drilling beneath park and wildlife areas.

“The Commission handed over Valley Run Wildlife Area, Zepernick Wildlife Area and Ohio’s largest state park — Salt Fork State Park — to drillers without considering the environmental and geologic impacts of oil and gas development,” Hunter said. “Thousands of state residents and users of these protected public lands demand accountability for this enormous failing.”

A separate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of HB 507 remains pending. Meanwhile, new filings this month ask the commission to allow drilling and fracking under Egypt Valley Wildlife Area and Keen Wildlife Area.

Environmental groups appeal court order on drilling under Ohio park and wildlife areas is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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