By Jamison Cocklin
A proposal under consideration in Salem that would restrict oil and gas companies’ drilling is being met with both push back and bewilderment.
After it was suggested by the city’s planning and zoning officer, Patrick Morrissey, the proposed zoning ordinance — which would limit drilling to only specified industrial zones within city limits — was forwarded by the three-member rules and ordinance committee for a first reading by the city council earlier this month.
The new rule would supposedly apply to vertical or horizontally drilled wells. Under the proposal, such activity is classified as “industrial” and would be limited to industrial zoning districts where it could not occur within 500 feet of any existing building or structure.
For Salem, in a hotbed of oil and gas activity in Columbiana County, the move is an unusual one. Already, there are 13 drilled or permitted wells outside the city limits, mostly belonging to Chesapeake Energy.
Mayor John Berlin acknowledged that the ordinance will most likely have little clout because under state law the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management has control over all permitting activity.
Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the ODNR division, said the Salem law could not be enforced.
“It’s been our position that we have sole and exclusive authority to permit and regulate all aspects of oil and gas drilling,” Bruce said. “We maintain that authority and it has to go through us.”
But Berlin was quick to point out that the city does favor oil and gas drilling. In June 2012, the city leased several hundred acres of publicly owned property to Chesapeake Energy.
“There’s not much we can do if residents have signed surface lease agreements — ODNR issues the permits,” Berlin said. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve as this activity picks up and limit what goes on inside the city if we can.”
City officials have essentially targeted the city limits with the zoning ordinance because that’s where its industrial zones are located. Berlin said no drilling has taken place in the corporation limits and the proposed zoning ordinance will hopefully encourage oil and gas companies to set up well pads in those industrial areas.
He added that Salem’s city limits are only a couple miles in any direction and it shouldn’t be a burden to plan inside industrial zones or outside city boundaries.
But Clyde Brown, Salem’s Second Ward councilman, said the proposal and its first reading during the July 8 council meeting have occurred too fast, with little or no public input. After the reading, the proposal made its way to the planning commission where it is currently in a waiting period for further discussion.
Even if most of Salem’s drilling has occurred in rural areas, Brown said there have been problems with noise, fumes, bright lights and heavy truck traffic related to that activity everywhere in the area.
He said he is not opposed to oil and gas drilling in rural areas, but added that if the city is going to go to the trouble of placing restrictions on the industry it should simply ban drilling anywhere inside the city.
Brown said an M-2 industrial zone, the kind which the ordinance applies to, cuts his ward in half, where low-income residents live, saying the last thing the district needs is drilling activity. On Monday, Brown had a public meeting to raise awareness about the proposal. After that, he said, it’s up to the public to take action on how the measure proceeds.
Alan Wenger, chairman of the oil and gas law group at Youngstown-based Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell, is puzzled by the proposed ordinance. Though he is not involved in its proceedings, he said it’s no different than other efforts to ban drilling, injection wells, or other oil- and gas-related activity in communities across the state.
“I’m at a loss, and it has me scratching my head because trying to say where [oil and gas companies] can drill and trying to limit setbacks — that’s not something [Salem] can do under current law,” Wenger said.
Berlin said it will be at least 60 more days before the ordinance can be approved because of procedural rules and public hearings that are required by city law.