FRACKING FRACAS IN A LOCAL LABYRINTH

Posted on February 19, 2013 by David Buente

Oil and gas development has traditionally been regulated by the states, and the majority of the states with viable shale reserves have adopted laws or regulations that directly address hydraulic fracturing.  However, several local governments have responded to concerns over potential health and environmental impacts by banning hydraulic fracturing within their jurisdictions.  To date, local bans have been enacted in Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  In several cases these local bans have been challenged as being preempted by comprehensive state regulation of oil and gas development.  While there is very little appellate case law addressing the legality of local bans, two preemption cases are currently on appeal in New York.  Norse Energy Corp. USA v. Town of Dryden, No. 2012-1015 (N.Y. App. Div.); Cooperstown Holstein Corp. v. Town of Middlefield, No. 2012-1010 (N.Y. App. Div.).  In each case, the local trial court upheld a local ban on hydraulic fracturing, finding that preemption language in the state’s Oil, Gas, and Solution Mining Law (“OGSML”) did not apply to local land use regulations. 

Appellant natural gas developers rely primarily on the OGSML’s preemption provision, arguing that its broad language was intended to preempt all local ordinances and regulations related to oil and gas development unless they are directed toward local roads or real property taxes.  They also emphasize the broad scope of DEC’s oil and gas regulations which go beyond regulating how oil and gas development is conducted and also address spacing requirements and other limitations on where oil and gas development can occur.  Thus, they assert that any local ordinance that limits where hydraulic fracturing can occur is superseded by the OGSML.  The natural gas developers also argue that under implied preemption principles and New York’s constitutional limits on home rule authority, local governments cannot prohibit hydraulic fracturing because such regulations are in direct conflict with the OGSML’s provisions that dictate where oil and gas development can occur.  Finally, the natural gas developers argue that the trial court’s reliance on supersedure provisions from other statutes was misplaced due to key differences in the language of the supersedure provisions as well as the relatively broader scope of DEC’s regulatory authority under the OGSML.   

In contrast, the towns of Dryden and Middlefield assert that local prohibitions on hydraulic fracturing can be harmonized with the OGSML and its preemption provision.  They argue that the local bans on hydraulic fracturing were not enacted for the purpose of regulating natural gas development, but instead are part of comprehensive land use plans designed to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare of the local community.  Because the purpose of the prohibitions are not to “regulate” natural gas development, the towns contend that the prohibitions are not subject to the OGSML’s preemption provision.  Instead, they argue that such local bans can be harmonized with the OGSML by limiting the OGSML’s well spacing and setback provisions to those areas where oil and gas development is otherwise permitted.  Further, the towns argue that the trial court properly relied on earlier cases interpreting the supersedure provisions of the Mined Lands Reclamation Law (“MLRL”).  The towns assert that the supersedure provisions in the MLRL and OGSML are substantially similar and, therefore, should be given similar effect.  Thus, the towns assert that the prior cases that upheld local ordinances banning mining practices that were subject to regulation under the MLRL are binding precedent here. 

Oral argument has been scheduled for March 21, 2013 and a final decision is not expected for several months, at the earliest.  However, these cases will be closely watched in other jurisdictions where local bans on hydraulic fracturing have been enacted and where additional litigation is expected.  Given the diversity among state laws addressing both home rule authority and oil and gas development, the legality of local bans on hydraulic fracturing is likely to remain a hotly debated issue for several years to come, particularly as oil and gas development using hydraulic fracturing continues to expand to new shale reserves around the country.



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